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Posts Tagged ‘Sofia Coppola’

Overheard in a cinema in the Earth Year 1994, prior to a revival of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver:

‘Did you see that Clint Eastwood film on telly the other night?’

‘Oh yeah – he goes into that girls’ school and has them all wrapped right round his little finger, right up until the moment when they [spoiler redacted]. Top movie.’

Overheard in a cinema in the Earth Year 2017, after a screening of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled:

‘So, what did you think?’

‘Well, I thought he was perhaps suited a bit more to the part than Clint Eastwood was…’

‘Well, Clint Eastwood’s not a very good actor, is he?’

(I had to absent myself from the vicinity of the conversation at this point, lest an eruption occur.)

Perhaps I should make clear that the people I was earwigging in 1994 were both youngish men, while my companions for the new version of The Beguiled were somewhat older ladies. Does this tell us anything about the differences between the 1971 version of the movie, directed by Don Siegel, and the remake? Well, perhaps.

Like the original, Sofia Coppola’s movie is set during the latter stages of the American Civil War, in and around a finishing school for girls in Virginia. Due to the turmoil of the conflict, only a tiny group of pupils remain, along with a couple of staff members – headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) and teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst).

One day, one of the girls is out picking mushrooms in the woods near the school when she comes across John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded enemy soldier. She helps him back to the grand old house in which the establishment is located, at which point the question becomes one of what they should do with him. Obviously, the sensible thing to do would be to call in the authorities of their own side straight away, but somehow it doesn’t seem quite so simple – McBurney would probably die on the way to a prison camp, so the charitable thing is surely to keep him around until he feels better, isn’t it?

There is, not to put too fine a point on it, a little unrelieved tension in the air, as the presence of McBurney has an alarming effect on a group of women and girls who have apparently been living without masculine company for far too long. McBurney’s own natural charm and manipulative nature don’t help matters much. The women are soon all under his spell, and he seems to be on to a very good thing at the school. But has he underestimated the strength of the emotions his arrival has unleashed?

Being a hate-filled fanatically misogynistic crypto-fascist (apparently), I am constantly surprised by the fact that I frequently admire and enjoy films directed by and starring women, but there you go. I did not catch Sofia Coppola’s last couple of films, but I did see Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, and had a pretty good time watching them both (even if my review of the latter does contain the suggestion ‘would have been much improved by the addition of a story and some decent dialogue’). The Beguiled is likewise not a film which anyone is likely to decry as an offence against cinema, but at the same time I can’t see it becoming as big a critical darling as some of this director’s films.

I mean, the actual carpentry of the story holds together pretty well, though it would possibly have been better if we’d got more of a sense of what life in the school was like prior to McBurney’s arrival. Creating atmosphere is one of Coppola’s strengths as a director and she duly creates a strong sense of unspoken tension between the various women as they slowly begin to compete for McBurney’s favours. The performances are universally strong, although everyone seems to be operating very much within their comfort zone as a performer. I’m sure I’ve seen Nicole Kidman do that mannered southern lady schtick before, and the same is true of Kirsten Dunst’s repressed schoolteacher. Elle Fanning perhaps does something slightly new as a somewhat out-of-control young girl. On the whole this is the kind of film you would expect it to be – atmospheric, fairly intense, and not especially light on its feet.

Then again, perhaps I’m biased, for I have seen the original Don Siegel movie on which the new one is based (although admittedly not recently). The 1971 Beguiled always seemed to me to be very much framed and marketed as a Western, although that may just be down to the presence of Eastwood and Siegel. The new movie is much more open about its identity as a drama (perhaps even a melodrama) in the Southern Gothic tradition, though perhaps this is also the result of the story being seen from a more openly feminine perspective.

Even so, this is hardly a radical new interpretation of the story – all the key plot beats survive very much intact (at one point someone is sent to fetch a book on anatomy and a saw), but I suppose the characters are drawn a little differently – McBurney is less of a sexual predator, perhaps, and the incestuous elements of the original story have been removed. The movie has also drawn flak for, would you believe it, a lack of diversity, because the character of a slave who featured in the Siegel version has likewise gone. (In her defence, Coppola has said that she felt that it would not do justice to the importance of the issue of slavery to just touch on it in passing, as would most likely have been the case had she included a single minor character in this way. Sounds reasonable to me, but, hey, I’m apparently not the best person to judge this kind of issue.)

I would imagine you are more likely to enjoy watching the new version of The Beguiled if you are not familiar with the one starring Eastwood, simply because the plot will contain a few surprises for you. This is a well-mounted, well-played, capably-directed movie, but it doesn’t really add that much to an original which was a memorably unsettling and quietly powerful psycho-drama in its own right. A moderately engaging piece of entertainment, I think: not much more than that.

 

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 25th 2007: 

Moving swiftly on, we turn to Sofia Coppola’s follow-up to Lost in Translation, which I was not surprised to learn would probably not have been made had that movie not turned out to be such a hit. If you walk into the offices of film companies (even ones owned by your dad) and announce you want to make a bio-pic of an 18th century aristocrat, starring an actress best known for playing Spider-Man’s other half and with a soundtrack somewhat derived from Malcolm McLaren’s back catalogue, it helps to have a big hit and an Oscar in your recent past.

Kirsten Dunst indeed plays Marie Antoinette and although the chronology of the movie is rather vague, it covers her life from her arrival at the court of Versailles in 1770 to the Royal Family fleeing the premises at the onset of the French Revolution. In between come many scenes concerning court ritual, her initially-non-consummated marriage, very big wigs, and lots of shoes, but not a great deal of plot as it is traditionally understood. We had a bit of an excursion to see this at the Serial Killerplex in Chiba (mainly, it must be said, because we weren’t aware that The Departed was already showing) and afterwards the consensus was that that this movie would have been much improved by things like a story and some decent dialogue.

The tone is rather uneven, with some bizarre casting decisions – Marianne Faithfull plays the Empress of Austria, Steve Coogan her ambassador to Versailles (Coogan is rather restrained in this role) and Rip Torn is Louis XV. (Everyone uses their natural accent, which is arguably a mistake.) At first this just looks like a rather dull costume drama and then about half-way through everyone starts dancing to Bow Wow Wow and Siouxsie and the Banshees as Parisian Balls. And this is another film that doesn’t really bother with an ending – I’m not saying I feel cheated of seeing Kirsten Dunst get guillotined, but I did come out wondering what the point was.

That said, it is interesting that, for a figure synonymous with decadence and excess, Marie Antoinette is presented entirely sympathetically throughout this movie. Dunst plays here as a sweet girl who finds herself helplessly sucked into the wild debauchery and bedhopping frenzy of court life (a bit like the expat scene here come to think of it), much more likable than (for example) the Duchess de Polignac, one of her cronies, richly played here by the lovely Rose Byrne (interestingly, she and Coppola both have stints as Naboo handmaidens in their past careers). The film’s depiction of overindulged rich girls with outrageous dress sense and obsessions with tiny dogs seemed to me to be drawing an explicit parallel with the likes of Paris Hilton. If this is intentional, then the movie is in some way suggesting that many often-excoriated aspects of modern culture are in fact nothing be ashamed of. This is not a point of view I am much inclined to agree with, but it’s one I’m prepared to listen to. That said, it’s not particularly well-presented here.

I’m not entirely sure if this is a bad movie or not. It’s certainly diverting and passes the time pleasantly enough, but it does seem rather superficial and Dunst doesn’t quite have the chops to pull off a role as significant as this. She gets a number of decorous nude scenes which are bound to raise her internet profile, but I think the one who should be worrying about cries of ‘The Empress has no clothes on!’ is the director.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 21st 2004:

[Originally this followed a review of The Last Samurai.]

And so we move on to Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation: another week, another film about a troubled American (this time round it’s comedy legend Bill Murray) finding spiritual solace, of a sort, while visiting Japan. A joke about how it would be much more interesting if Tom Cruise starred in the thoughtful tale of bittersweet urban heartache and Murray led the samurai revolt is pretty much obligatory at this point – so feel free to make one for yourself.

Murray plays Bob Harris – not the whispering muso DJ but a Hollywood star – who’s in Tokyo to promote a brand of Japanese whiskey. (It has become a sort of urban legend that really famous actors are forever flying off there to endorse unlikely products – Tommy Lee Jones selling coffee, Cameron Diaz plugging mobile phones – for ridiculous sums, on the understanding the ads never appear outside Japan.) Quite how famous Bob actually is is a bit vague, as hardly anyone makes a big deal out of meeting him and he’s not mobbed on the ginza, despite his face appearing on billboards and the sides of trucks. But anyway.

Staying at the same hotel is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young woman still figuring out what to do with her life, who’s only in the country to accompany her photographer husband (who means well but is basically a bit of a putz). Bob and Charlotte get to know each other, and…

Well, nothing much actually happens, if we’re honest. This is one of those films that’s been very widely praised, and has certainly been crafted with a good deal of care and skill, and is very satisfying to watch. But the actual plot could be written on the back of a stamp. Bob and Charlotte basically have a very restrained and almost totally chaste affair before going their separate ways. The fact that it happens in Tokyo is largely immaterial – because, although there’s some pretty scenery, the obligatory karaoke sequence (oh, how I love karaoke!), and some bracingly un-PC jokes about the Japanese, Coppola seems more interested in the city as a sort of absurd summation of everything about modern urban living, as seen with all the sense and personal investment stripped out of it (she also seems very interested in Johannson sitting around her hotel room in her pants, judging from the huge number of scenes in which this happens).

I’m probably not doing a very good job of selling you on this film, which is a shame as it really is rather good, honest – for one thing it has a couple of what I’m sure will prove to be the funniest scenes of the year, as the none-more-deadpan Murray contends with a demented TV commercial director and later on a rather excitable prostitute someone’s had sent to his room. But Murray is excellent throughout, his lugubriousness also deployed to express a real sense of listlessness and quiet despair, as well as the realisation that his relationship with Johansson isn’t in any proper sense real. Johansson is every bit his equal in a much less showy part, giving the film heart and soul. It’s a hugely accomplished performance, and all the more impressive considering that only a few months ago the most memorable moment in Johansson’s career was the sight of her getting glued to her bedroom wall by a giant spider.

Sofia Coppola, who knows a thing or two about dodgy early career moves herself, deserves huge credit for writing and directing such an accomplised and distinctive film – even if it isn’t quite the work of utter genius many critics seem to have taken it for. Lost In Translation simply sets out to tell a story about the brief relationship between two very different people – and does it extremely well, filling the tale with charm and longing and real tenderness. A subtle gem.

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