There’s a moment about an hour into Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” when you just know that things are about to get lurid. Until then, her version of the book that also produced a 1971 potboiler starring Clint Eastwood has been relatively restrained — more slow burn than hysterical, all mood and menace instead of melodrama.
But then Colin Farrell, playing a wounded Union soldier who’s been taken in by a girl’s seminary in Virginia during the waning years of the Civil War, beds one of the girls and incurs the wrath of a couple of others … and gets pushed down the stairs, reopening the gory leg wound that put him there in the first place … and wakes up to find that headmistress Miss Martha, played by Nicole Kidman, has kindly amputated his leg while he was out.
“Nobody told me it was a house of mad women!” he screams, and it’s obvious that just as surely as the trees are draped in Spanish moss and the cicadas are going into overdrive, we’re in for an overheated Southern Gothic maelstrom of a finale.
But then Coppola, who if nothing else is impossible to pigeonhole, goes back to underplaying material that all that cries out for overplaying.
That’s why “The Beguiled,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday and will be released this summer by Focus Features, is such a richly satisfying piece of subtle reinvention. It’s a hoot, to be sure, but it doesn’t try too hard to be a hoot; instead, it’s an austere and moody bit of Southern Gothic-ish suspense, never trying to oversell pulpy material that all but begs to be oversold and amped up.
This is Coppola’s fourth film at Cannes, after “The Virgin Suicides,” “Marie Antoinette” and “The Bling Ring,” and it’s the first remake (if you want to call it that) of her career. The Don Siegel original featured Eastwood as the soldier and Geraldine Page as the head of the school — but Siegel, whose other films included “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Dirty Harry,” embraced the more lurid aspects of a story that puts a swarthy man in a house full of Southern belles dressed in varying shades of white.
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Coppola retains some of that, particularly to deliver jolts of dark humor — she subtly riffs on Gothic melodrama without fully surrendering to it. Miss Martha gives Corporal John McBurney a sponge bath, and has to stop herself and take a deep breath when she gets close to his crotch; a few minutes later, a mere conversation between McBurney and Kirsten Dunst’s Miss Edwina leaves her clutching the door frame and breathing hard.
But this version of the story has a languid pacing that fits the setting of a stately mansion usually sunk into darkness, light struggling to come through the heavy drapes. Its best scenes aren’t McBurney’s attempts to play the girls against each other, which are actually played down from the Eastwood version, but the women’s own subtle gamesmanship. (There’s a priceless dinner in which Miss Jane says she baked the apple pie — Miss Edwina points out it was from her recipe, but Miss Amy adds that she picked the apples … )
Kidman knows how to find all the sweaty splendor in overheated material — remember, she once came to Cannes with Lee Daniel’s ludicrous potboiler “The Paperboy” — but she has quiet fun with this one, including the fabulous line, “Edwina! Bring me the anatomy book!” (Believe me, context is everything.)
Farrell, who like Kidman is also in the Cannes title “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” has the charm and menace required for the role, but he’s less of a force than Eastwood was in the early version. And he’s robbed of some of Clint’s more menacing moments, like the opening scene where Eastwood’s character told 12-year-old Amy she was “old enough for kissing.” This time, the focus is more on the jockeying for position between the students and teachers, with Dunst a touching standout as the woman who falls hardest for McBurney’s con.
The Cannes press audience at Wednesday morning’s screening went along with all of it and applauded warmly when it ended. Sure, maybe “The Beguiled” is more of a guilty pleasure than a Palme d’Or contender, but you don’t have to feel much guilt about falling under its spell.