Adaptations Part 3: A Painted Devil Twice Imagined as The Beguiled

Below you will find two reviews: one of The Beguiled from 2017, directed by Sofia Coppola, and another of The Beguiled from 1971, directed by Don Siegel. Both are contrasting adaptations of the 1966 novel of the same name  by Thomas P. Cullinan (it was originally released under the title ‘A Painted Devil’).

The Beguiled (2017, Focus Features & American Zoetrope)
Directed by Sofia Coppola, featuring Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning

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This period drama set in the last years of the American Civil War is about a wounded Union Soldier, John McBurney (played by Farrell), found and cared for by a small household of women and girls in a school in Virginia. Though he is ‘the enemy’, their Christian duty is to tend to his wounds in the first instance. After a few days though, the women and girls of the household are all overcome by the man’s presence, with many sighs, heavy breathing and flirtatious sideway glances abound. But things get complicated and jealousies ensue. There is a terrible accident and the soldier becomes aggressive and unpredictable. The women and girls, under the lead of their headmistress (played by Kidman), embark on a plan to deal with his aggression – the plan is carried out remarkably quickly in what should be a pivotal scene. However, there appears to be so little drama associated with this moment that it left one feeling perplexed and confused.

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Overall, the script is somewhat weak and there is an uncomfortable fairytale-like feeling to the film. For example, each of the women and girls have to work the fields themselves, forage for mushrooms in the woods, chop wood, etc. Yet all their dresses are impeccable, without blemishes or frayed hems. The camera shots try hard for an aesthetic that it does not quite pull off – there are too many mists in the frame, too many filtered light beaming through the trees and the images of an idyllic landscape is clearly forced. This film is just about interesting enough for one to sit through to the end, and mercifully, it is less than 100 minutes long – anymore and it would have been tedious work. Unfortunately, as a ‘sensual’ or ‘aesthetic’ drama – which I believe was Coppola’s design –  is a touch dull.

Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 2.5/5

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The Beguiled (1971, Universal Pictures)
Directed by Don Siegel, featuring Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman

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Sofia Coppola, in her extensive interviews concerning her current version of The Beguiled, faintly praises Siegel’s movie as ‘so 70s…and macho’. I believe in part this to be a proper summation. However, apologies for something based on the statement ‘it was the times they were made in’ is a slightly trite reasoning I find. Of course The Beguiled was indeed made in an era of innovative filmmaking in the US, an era that was also overwhelmingly dominated by men – look at the credits on any of these films and you will rarely find any women among the production crew. The thing with Siegel’s film is that it has at its very heart a story of sexual politics…but holy shit, this so-called ‘heart’ is absolutely unreachable at times. For that reason, it is a fascinating and unpredictable film that I wholly recommend you to watch.

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The tale of a wounded Yankee soldier (who is apparently Irish) stumbling into a Southern seminary full of girls during the American Civil War is erotically and violently charged from the beginning. The circumstances are pretty clear – the man (played superbly off-kilter by Eastwood) greasily uses the women (of all ages it must be added) to avoid capture from the Confederates but underestimates the deepening unrest and jealousy that his presence and various romantic associations has caused. Geraldine Page, as the calculating headmistress, gives us an unforgettable and brilliantly unhinged performance, which I believe is the standout of the film. She is, at times, believably crazy and plays the role of flawed leader perfectly.

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There is quite a bit going on here – more than just the battle of the sexes really. The hot and simmering Mississippi setting, for example, provides a perfect atmosphere to the grimy goings-on at the school. The events are almost entirely confined to the grounds of the school, and with a war raging outside, there is no knowing what to expect to come through the gates next. The tension is palpable throughout. Having said all this, there is no escaping the underlying misogyny in Siegel’s film. If we are to believe what he said during interviews concerning what the film’s central theme is about (i.e. that women have a basic desire to castrate men), then the purpose in which he conducts his direction is deeply, deeply disturbing – much more vindictive than just ‘so 70s….and macho’….and I think the tone of the original trailer (included below) further affirms this.

Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 3.5/5

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