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This Summer’s Real Wonder Women

June 22, 2017

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Women are doing amazing things at the movies — and I’m not just talking about director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, which shattered the $100 million opening-weekend glass ceiling. I’m thinking of female filmmakers like The Zookeeper’s Wife‘s Niki Caro and Band Aid‘s Zoe-Lister Jones, who have worked with primarily distaff crews, and especially Sofia Coppola, who became only the second woman in history to win Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival with her feminist remake of Clint Eastwood’s The Beguiled.

The 1971 original, directed by one of Clint’s most macho collaborators, Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, Escape from Alcatraz), adapted Thomas Cullinan’s novel about an injured Union deserter during the Civil War who takes refuge at an all-girls’ school behind Confederate lines and drives the women there mad with desire. It plays like a Gothic horror film, seen from Corporal John McBurney’s perspective, as the cruel headmistress (Geraldine Page) amputates his wounded leg after he’s caught in bed with one of the girls (Jo Ann Harris) and pushed down the stairs by a virginal teacher (Elizabeth Hartman) who’s desperately in love with him.

Coppola’s version tells the story from the women’s points of view, and the characters are much subtler. Nicole Kidman underplays the headmistress role — she’s far from the castrating psycho embodied by Page. Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, each of whom has collaborated with Coppola before on films like The Virgin Suicides and Somewhere, refuse to conform to Madonna and whore archetypes. And Colin Farrell brings a more feral hostility to the wounded soldier than cool Clint could muster.

The Beguiled 2.0 runs 12 minutes shorter than its predecessor, as Coppola (who also wrote the screenplay) chooses not to depict the amputation on-screen and also excises an incestuous subplot involving the schoolmarm, thus rendering Kidman’s character more sympathetic. Her images, shot by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, are immaculately composed, and she demonstrates a masterful control of the film’s tone. A second Oscar nomination for Best Director (after 2003’s Lost in Translation) seems likely for Coppola, and she could earn repeat nods for Best Picture and Best Screenplay as well. She delivers on the promise of the film’s title: She beguiles us.

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