The Beguiled–Bewitched and Possessed

 

The Beguiled

In Sophia Coppola’s reinterpretation of the 1971 Clint Eastwood film by the same name, The Beguiled opens with an eleven-year-old girl gathering mushrooms in her straw basket deep in a quiet wood in Virginia. Conjuring an image of Little Red Riding Hood soon coming upon a big bad wolf, we see her discover the wounded John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Union soldier in the midst of the Civil War. The child decides to take him back to her girls’ boarding school. Headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) is reluctant but feels a moral obligation to tend to him. Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), a teacher locks McBurney in the music room, terrified of what could be a menace to their highly secluded and precarious lifestyle. In a series of lovingly erotic shots of headmistress Martha’s bathing Farrell’s chest, forearms, calves, and neck as she ministers to his injuries, the viewer sees a foreshadowing of what is to come.

Meanwhile, the students—especially the sexually blossoming teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning), huddle by the door, to get at least a brief glimpse of probably the only man to ever visit the boarding school. Aware of McBurney’s sexual drive as well as their own (albeit sometimes subconsciously), each girl except the youngest who is eleven, preens in front of him: with pearl earrings, a formal dress, or bearing small gifts. Miss Martha looks at all of this in horror, but raging hormones are everywhere.

McBurney is a shape-shifter, and his foil are the two adult women: Martha and Edwina. At times respectful or seductive, compassionate or manipulative, sometimes earnest, McBurney manages to be both for each resident.

The Beguiled is just that: hypnotic, mesmerizing, and unsettling. With each scene– fleeting, things unsaid, –there are repressed emotions and dreams, a stultifying code of norms for girls and women. The drama is internal–expressed in the cinematography by the placement of scenes within the boundaries of the boarding school. Perhaps symbolic of the interior life of the female realm where women, confined by their circumstances, can only be independent when the male lies powerless, the viewer sees what happens when women, unaccustomed to this power, react. The mere presence of a man unexpectedly and violently alters their group dynamic.

The pacing for this historical drama is at times slow. However, The Beguiled is worth watching, especially for the originality of Sophia Coppola’s world view. Both Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst infuse humor and intensity into their roles, giving performances that are perfectly interwoven. This is perhaps Colin Farrell’s best performance yet. And Elle Fanning is a wonder, embodying teenage sexuality, giving heat through her languid gestures, evoking a boredom on the verge of explosion.

The Beguiled rages with what lies underneath the surface. This is Sophia Coppola at her very best.

 

Note:  Currently available on Netflix (DVD)

 

“Fargo”: Season 2—Still Far to Go

 

fargo-season-2-ted-danson-patrick-wilson

Season 2 of the award-winning Fargo mini-series is a stunning repeat performance not only of the Coen brothers’ iconic movie by the same name but also in its succession to Season 1. The season finale of Fargo was broadcast this week.

Comedy meets tragedy. Humor meets violence. Surreal meets the real with an infusion of the main theme: the loss of innocence. Hell descends, though the characters are ill-prepared, and now there is no turning back. Their unexpected dark side grows like a cancer. [And the ferocious transformation of characters is not unlike Walter White in “Breaking Bad”.]

Welcome to the world of Fargo, where wisecracks about food sit comfortably next to corpses in bloody scene after bloody scene. Season 2 is planted firmly in 1979, when the tensions of the Vietnam War have left their scars, when women’s changing roles and race relations are in the average American’s consciousness. Even in North Dakota and Minnesota, there is no escape. Social change will be traumatic for some, even in this isolated enclave where Lutheran pragmatism dictates avoiding self-expression and standing out from one’s family and community.

The ensemble cast is remarkable: Ted Danson, Patrick Wilson, Jesse Plemons (from “Breaking Bad”) and most of all Jean Smart and Kirsten Dunst. Jean Smart’s performance as Floyd Gerhart, matriarch of a small-town family syndicate, is a standout. Kirsten Dunst, in her first major television role, as Peggy, is stunning as the quiet beautician wanting to make her dream– “I just wanted to be someone”– come true. Echoes of perhaps the most famous quote in “On the Waterfront” (1954) by another dreamer, Terry (Marlon Brando): “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.”  Flash-forward twenty-five years and Peggy is yearning for the same thing.

Their 1970’s North Dakota and Minnesota is populated with UFO’s (a sighting in Fargo was reported in 1975), crystals, “self-actualization” EST seminars , sideburns and bell bottoms. Peggy is so self-absorbed in becoming a new person, that in perhaps the most bizarre of the episodes , [Spoiler Alert!!] she is nonplussed when a UFO descends in the midst of a shoot-out. “It’s just a UFO, Ed. We gotta go”. Both startling and silly, the scene nonetheless epitomizes Fargo, North Dakota and its residents at that time.

The wonder of wonders is that this season marks the repeat of a new trend in mini-series: a continuation of the mini-series with a completely new story and cast, a trend started by “True Detective”. With far more sophistication and complex plot devices, the creators of Season 2 (notably Noah Hawley) leave no question in the viewer’s mind that this is indeed Coen territory. Fargo pays homage to Season 1, with the same characters (different actors) in a flash-forward to their older selves.

Although this season can stand on its own (for those who haven’t seen Season 1), tying in the principal characters from the first season into Season 2 is masterfully crafted. Moreover, I’m hoping some of the new characters added to the story will undoubtedly also be reborn in Season 3, whether as a flash-forward or as backstory. There is still far to go in this anthology in the Coen spirit. Season 3 of Fargo is now underway. The surprise and intrigue continue!