Nicole Kidman Watch, Part 4 looks at Coppola's 'f---boy takedown,' which just debuted at Cannes
Nasty women, rejoice: It seems as if Cannes saved Nicole Kidman’s best for last.
Critics are calling Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled — the final installment in Kidman’s four-part domination of the annual festival’s 2017 edition, which screened for press Wednesday morning — a “hilariously fraught feminist psychodrama,” signaling a welcome return for the Oscar-winning filmmaker 11 years after her previous competition title, Marie Antoinette, competed for the Palme d’Or in 2006.
Save for a few negative reactions (The Independent‘s Kaleem Aftab gave the film 2/5 stars), journalists, for the most part, are heralding The Beguiled as a standout entry (if a tad pulpier than previous efforts) among Coppola’s well-respected filmography (Lost in Translation, Somewhere), noting a distinct departure from her signature, subdued style in a film that radiates with thrilling, deliciously dark southern gothic flair.
“Sofia Coppola transforms The Beguiled from eager, lurid romp to witheringly elegant f–kboy takedown. Loved it,” The Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin tweeted shortly after the film’s first press screening Wednesday morning. His review elaborates: “Coppola has pruned away almost everything outside her comfort zone, then distilled the plot down to a slender, refined and witheringly funny morality tale in which a tight-knit sisterhood is destabilized by one man, with growingly horrific consequences… largely for him.”
The film, Coppolas’s reinterpretation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel, which was previously adapted for the big screen by Don Siegel with Clint Eastwood leading the cast, follows a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrel) who, during the American Civil War, seeks refuge within an all-female seminary fronted by a stern headmistress (Kidman), where his presence stirs a dangerous concoction of sexual tension into the girls’ sheltered dynamic, and Coppola reportedly handles the whole thing through a uniquely feminist lens.
“Coppola finally contrives a female and arguably feminist perspective on this story that Don Siegel didn’t. It is certainly more subtle, with none of the sexualised fantasy and flashback screens that Siegel had. Instead, Coppola brings to the story a buried menace that reminded me of Ira Levin,” The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw writes in his four-star review. Nikola Grozdanović adds: “[The Beguiled is a] gorgeously-shot feminist Civil War fable. Coppola’s best since [Lost in Translation]. Nicole Kidman is on absolute fire… ”
Film Journal‘s Tomris Laffly agrees, tweeting, “Sofia Coppola knows how to toy & have fun w/ female gaze. I’m all giddy here w/ mischief. Grateful we have her.”
While Kidman’s performance is singled out by several critics, it seems that Dunst — who is enjoying a fabulous year-plus stretch thanks to starring roles on FX’s Fargo, a spot on last year’s Cannes jury, prestige roles in The Beguiled and Midnight Special, plus a supporting part in the runaway hit Hidden Figures, which received a 2017 Oscar nod for Best Picture — steals the show.
“The Beguiled is a whole lotta f—–g fun, ravishingly shot, with a ‘damn she’s good’ MVP performance from Kirsten Dunst,” Vulture‘s Kyle Buchanan exclaimed on Twitter, while IndieWire‘s Anne Thompson praised the project’s headlining trifecta: “Sofia Coppola’s… The Beguiled is gorgeously shot battle of sexes led by formidable trio of Kidman, Dunst and Farrell.”
Still, the reviews are undoubtedly the best Kidman has received at Cannes this year. Her out-of-competition, punk-rockified turn John Cameron Mitchell’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties perhaps drew the movie’s most favorable reactions over the weekend, though critics responded far more favorably to her supporting part in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer on Monday. Tuesday saw the six-hour marathon screening of every episode of her Jane Campion-directed TV series Top of the Lake, which also fared well with critics, but Kidman’s best shot at earning her first Best Actress prize at Cannes likely lies within this picture, though the jury — fronted by Pedro Almodovar with the likes of Will Smith and Jessica Chastain also serving — will probably consider the sheer quantity of her work on the Croisette upon deliberation.
Coppola, who won an Academy Award for writing Lost in Translation‘s original screenplay, has yet to make a serious Oscar play since the release of Marie Antoinette, which bagged the Best Costume Design trophy at the 2007 ceremony. Here, The Beguiled‘s intricate costumes (designed by Stacey Battat, who also worked on Coppola’s The Bling Ring and Somewhere) could earn similar acclaim, but it might take a healthy box office run and steady critical support throughout the year for The Beguiled to show up on the Academy’s radar in above-the-line categories.
Regardless, IndieWire‘s David Ehrlich perfectly captures the collective sentiment surrounding Coppola’s latest with a single tweet: “The Beguiled, to put it bluntly, f—–g *rules.*”
The Beguiled opens June 23. See what critics are saying in the review excerpts below.
Steve Pond (The Wrap)
“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.”
David Ehrlich (IndieWire)
“But while the pace of The Beguiled might be new for Coppola, who’s known for her languorous portraits of ennui and dislocation, the film’s evocative flair for detail is par for the course. Here is a writer-director who always sees her characters as reflections of their hyper-specific environments, who is compelled by the rifts between women and the worlds they inhabit and insists on giving equal thought to both sides of that divide. This is Coppola’s third period piece, and once again it finds her using the trappings of another time to better convey the timelessness of its longing and loneliness, flowing through history like the fluorescent chemical dye of a magnetic scan…. By the time Coppola unveils her haunting final shot and lets it linger for a minute, her wildly thrilling new movie has made one thing very clear: Even the most prim and possessed of women have always had needs, but men ought to be careful who they f–k with.”
Robbie Collin (The Telegraph)
“Coppola has pruned away almost everything outside her comfort zone, then distilled the plot down to a slender, refined and witheringly funny morality tale in which a tight-knit sisterhood is destabilised by one man, with growingly horrific consequences… largely for him… Coppola and her cast express the softly shifting chemistry within the school building with consummate control and wit. Scenes are spritzed with minuscule double entendres, telling micro-glances and sly social manoeuvring – there’s a wonderful sequence in which the schoolgirls each claim responsibility for some element of an apple pie McBurney has enjoyed… Perhaps best of all is Dunst, whose softly heartbreaking performance keeps the film emotionally grounded as it skulks, late on, back into the woods and towards McBurney’s reckoning. Still, it’s every inch a group achievement, and the film’s best scenes are its ensemble ones: prayers before bedtime, musical recitals, meals by candlelight.”
Best Kidman shout-out: “It’s the kind of mood that brings out the best in Kidman, whose performance is deliciously subtle, but with a lemony edge of camp that allows her to twist an entire scene with the arch of an eyebrow or parting of her lips.”
Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian)
“Coppola tells the story with terrific gusto and insouciant wit, tying together images from the first scene and the last, so that the narrative satisfyingly snaps shut. She also coolly leaves it to us to understand how the title applies to different characters as the tale wears on.”
Owen Gleiberman (Variety)
“Sofia Coppola has long been a filmmaker who divides critics and audiences. I count myself as a Coppola believer (I even liked her Hollywood art ramble Somewhere), but this may be the first film she has made in which her essential personality as a director gets buried under the movie she’s making. She has “feminized” The Beguiled to the point that she has really just pummeled it into the shape of a prestige movie, one that ends with a telling tableau of the film’s female characters posed in formation, like some Civil War sorority of the newly woke. Coppola, in attempting to elevate the material, doesn’t seem to realize that The Beguiled is, and always was, a pulp psychodrama. Now it’s pulp with the juice squeezed out of it.”
Kaleem Aftab (The Independent)
“It is Coppola’s worst work… But this film is empty and vacuous with nothing new to say. For the first time, I found myself on the side of many of the detractors of Coppola’s oeuvre…It’s also atmospheric in the rare scenes that it’s outside the confines of the boarding school, cinematographer Philippe Le Lourd using mist and sunlight to create a gothic horror feel. His efforts achieve a sense that this supposedly fantasy scenario is actually a nightmare, but nothing else in Coppola’s movie is nearly as good.”
Jessica Kiang (The Playlist)
“And there are a lot of ways in which Coppola makes a virtue of an almost old-fashioned approach (there are no Marie Antoinette anachronisms: no pop soundtracking, no Converse in the closet, no anarchy in the smooth, rhythmic editing). The film has touches of a fairytale at times: there’s a little of Red Riding Hood on her encounter with the wolf in Amy with her basket of mushrooms walking through the forest. Alicia performs a kind of reverse Sleeping Beauty on the Corporal when she wakes him with a kiss. And Edwina’s status as the somewhat disregarded drudge who dreams of escape has elements, perhaps in her mind most of all, of Cinderella. But best of all is how The Beguiled looks and sounds: the overgrown gardens singing with crickets; the brooches and the stitches and the weave of the fabrics, from muslin to satin to sackcloth; the sweet voices singing Civil War love song ‘Lorena’; and a circle of femaleness, gathered in candlelight around a lone man, engulfing and almost obscuring him in a puffery of pastel pleats and petticoats. With imagery like this, you almost don’t miss the kink. ”
Best Kidman shout-out: “Kidman is terrific, particularly towards the film’s close when she gets a reaction shot at the head of a dinner table which would be worth the price of entry alone.”
Gregory Ellwood (Collider)
“It’s ridiculous for anyone to spoil the film’s major twist because Coppola makes it clear the plot is less important than the fact that is their story and not John’s. The most impressive aspect of the new film is actually how Coppola flips the perspective to the female gaze in this respect. Where Siegel’s pulp thriller saw John as a victim of an increasingly competitive and sexually repressed environment Coppola’s version provides a much more balanced perspective. The ladies actions may be drastic, but it’s hard to argue they aren’t justified from their point of view. What is disappointing is that when the material wants to surprise you it simply doesn’t. These are dramatic tropes that have been more exhaustively played out previously than Coppola may have realized.”
Emily Yoshida (Vulture)
“I spent a chunk of the film wondering what here excited Coppola — what was it about the novel that she couldn’t wait to bring to the screen? I could see flickers of directorial affection in the warm, candlelit preparations for the seminary dinners and satin ribbons luxuriously knotted around braids. Philippe Le Sourd’s dreamy cinematography takes especially well to these dress-up scenes: The girls circle around Kidman for their evening prayers in a billow of pastel, in stark contrast to Farrell in Yankee navy. But there’s nothing elucidated by these dreamy visions of femininity, no larger idea Coppola is getting at besides the most basic mating behavior. It lends itself to some wry, well-delivered comic bits, but nothing here leaves a mark.”