“Write what you know” often is the first piece of advice received by anyone looking to develop a unique voice as an author. That approach has characterized the work of writer-director Sofia Coppola throughout her accomplished career.
Coppola not only won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for her 2003 film Lost in Translation, but also became the first American woman ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar. She managed a similar breakthrough with The Beguiled, winning a prestigious Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival as the first American woman ever nominated for that prize.
For Coppola, finding inspiration in her own life experiences has led to a clear emphasis on stories about women told from a uniquely female perspective. In The Virgin Suicides, The Bling Ring and other films, she has explored the nature of relationships among women in a group setting as few filmmakers before her have done. It’s no surprise that Coppola’s work typically stands in stark relief alongside that of her peers in male-dominated Hollywood.
The Beguiled is based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel of the same name (originally published as A Painted Devil) and further inspired by the 1971 film adaptation directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood. It tells the Civil War-era tale of an all-female boarding school in the South disrupted by the arrival of a wounded Union soldier. Unlike the 1971 film, Coppola’s version is told from the perspective of the female characters as opposed to that of the soldier.
Because Coppola chose to remove the African-American characters from a Civil War story that can’t exist outside the context of slavery, the film has been mired in controversy in recent weeks and the director has been accused of sanitizing history. The ensuing debate and social media blow-up have understandably diverted attention from the creative successes of an otherwise beautifully crafted film.
Colin Farrell plays John McBurney, an Irish mercenary for the Union with a badly wounded leg who is discovered in the woods near the boarding school by a young student. Because of the ravages of the war, only seven women remain at the school: headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman), teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), teenage student Alicia (Elle Fanning) and four younger students. The film is about how the group dynamic and individual behaviors of all the women are transformed by the presence of an attractive man in their cloistered world - at least until the film transforms into an all-out thriller.
Shot in southeast Louisiana (standing in for Virginia), mostly at the Madewood and Evergreen plantation houses and a private mansion in the Garden District, the film delivers the settings, sets, costumes and images (courtesy of French cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd) to fulfill its Southern Gothic potential. The Beguiled may be the strongest expression yet of Coppola’s lush and contemplative style. Dunst is especially memorable as the lonely Edwina, yearning to break free from circumstances dictated by the war.
The controversy caused by Coppola’s slavery-era-without-slaves adaptation overlaps with longstanding criticism that says her films always focus on characters of wealth and privilege. But the Coppola family is no stranger to controversy. Her father Francis, the auteur behind The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, has endured his own bouts of public criticism. Maybe that’s to be expected when you follow your own muse - and stick to writing what you know.
The Beguiled opens today, June 30. at the Prytania and Elmwood theaters.