5 films to watch to get the most out of The Beguiled

This handful of films echo through Sofia Coppola’s enthralling new southern gothic drama The Beguiled, starring Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning and Colin Farrell.

10 July 2017

By Sam Wigley

The Beguiled (2017)

With its ensemble cast of female stars, its dreamy visuals and its theme of blooming sexuality in girlhood, Sofia Coppola’s new film The Beguiled is so of a piece with her 1999 debut The Virgin Suicides that it may come as a surprise to learn that it’s a remake of an old Clint Eastwood movie.

Set during the American civil war in an isolated Virginia girls’ school presided over by Nicole Kidman, it co-stars Coppola regular Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning as two of the students whose world is turned upside down after their discovery of an injured Yankee soldier (Colin Farrell) in the woods nearby.

As the soldier recuperates under their care, his manly presence sets the girls’ hearts aflutter, and he laps up their rival attentions with little comprehension of the dangerous energies he’s unleashing.

Closing in on half a century after Don Siegel’s pulpy 1971 original, Coppola has notably recast the plot, shifting the focus from the bedevilled convalescent to the women who take him in. And it’s clear from watching the film that Coppola (who won best director at Cannes 2017) has also assimilated influences from elsewhere too – with ghost traces of gothic stories like Wuthering Heights and even the convalescent-in-peril nightmare of Misery (1990).

Here are five films that provide some great background viewing ahead of The Beguiled’s release.

Black Narcissus (1947)

Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Black Narcissus (1947)

It’s always been tempting to rechristen English actor David Farrar as David Phwoar, such is his character Mr Dean’s impact on a convent of nuns sequestered in the Himalayas in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s lusty 1947 classic Black Narcissus. Mr Dean is the local British agent who helps arrange the nuns’ tenancy of an abandoned harem, and the setting’s afterglow of eroticism combined with the presence of Dean’s hirsute masculinity creates all kinds of bewildering libidinous undercurrents. Switch one hairy-chested actor for another and it’s clear how Black Narcissus might have helped inspire how Coppola depicts the erotic tremors caused by Colin Farrell in the prim surroundings of the girls’ school.

The Beguiled (1971)

Director: Don Siegel

The Beguiled (1971)

Much has already been made of Sofia Coppola reclaiming the story of The Beguiled for a feminine/feminist perspective, so there’s obvious benefit in seeing Siegel’s original first as a point of comparison. Made with Clint Eastwood in the same year that the actor-director partnership turned in Dirty Harry, The Beguiled is an odder, scuzzier, more psychedelic treatment of the story than the remake – one which some critics have called straightforwardly misogynistic in its depiction of the emasculation of Eastwood’s recuperating soldier. Siegel plays up the southern gothic elements of the story, creating a steamy, hothouse atmosphere in which Eastwood’s sexual dalliances with the ladies of the house seem to lead inexorably to his symbolic castration.

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

Director: Víctor Erice

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

It’s not known whether Spanish director Víctor Erice saw the original The Beguiled (or read its source novel, A Painted Devil, by Thomas P. Cullinan), but his poetic 1973 debut The Spirit of the Beehive has some intriguing similarities. Both films take place in a lonely house against the backdrop of a civil war (the Spanish one in Erice’s case), both hinge on a young girl finding a wounded soldier nearby and the emotional reverberations that ensue during said soldier’s convalescence, and both utilise poisonous mushrooms as a plot device in their third act. Coppola’s more impressionistic rendering of The Beguiled is closer to Erice’s lyrical approach than Siegel’s more florid style, as is her shifted focus to the perspective of the impressionable young women.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Director: Peter Weir

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Peter Weir’s haunting telling of the mysterious disappearance of a group of Australian girl students at Hanging Rock, Victoria, in 1900 is a key visual and thematic touchstone for Coppola’s film – just as it had been for her 1999 debut The Virgin Suicides. Like The Beguiled, Picnic at Hanging Rock centres on the inter-relationships and burgeoning sexuality of school girls boarding together in a single-sex environment, and how this environment impacts on their imaginations. The dreamy, misted visuals and white, flowing dresses also link the two films, whereas Siegel’s original mainly clothes the women in far less flouncy browns and blues.

The Others (2001)

Director: Alejandro Amenábar

The Others (2001)

Also set in an almost otherworldly oasis, an enclave from the strife of war, The Others takes place in a gloomy old house on Jersey in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Here too Nicole Kidman plays a stern matriarch, who is attempting to look after her two suggestible young charges in the face of increasingly odd goings on about the home. Alejandro Amenábar’s creepy haunted house tale treads deeper into supernatural territory than Coppola’s film, and Kidman’s heroine is far more destabilised by events than her cool and collected Beguiled character allows herself to be. Yet there’s shared ground both in the sense of isolation in a mansion surrounded by forest and in the trope of a wounded soldier whose presence unsettles the feminised space of home.

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