“The Beguiled”

A remake of the 1971 Clint Eastwood film starring Colin Farrell, “Beguiled” is atmoshperic and Freudian,and a tad silly. Kirsten Dunst’s character is the least plausible. Why would a woman, who wishes to escape her claustrophobic five-student classroom, not act out when her lover is poisoned before they can run Westward Ho? Edwina (Dunst) was emotional enough when she pushed him down the staircase, emotional enough when he ripped her bodice of its pearl buttons. Can this lonely soul just sew his shroud without any retribution or outcry ?

“Character development” this critic screams, again for Colin Farrell, our Union mercenary of Irish origin, Corporal John McBurney. He is a wounded “player”, who plays all seven females, no matter their age with flattery and teasing unctuousness. He is not unlikeable, just into self-preservation and self-gratification. The women/girls are all beguiled as shown in a wonderful table scene where each try to compete for his favor.

The eleven-year-old mushroom picker, Amy, portrayed beautifully by Oona Laurence, is a picture of braided hair and sweetness as the apron-clad rescuer. Amy helps the leg-wounded corporal hobble to The Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, where he is treated and allowed to convalesce instead of taken to a Confederate prison camp. The young Amy introduces him to her classmates: the musical Jane ( Angourie Rice), the bright Marie (Addison Riecke), the playful yet solicitous, Emily (Emma Howard), and the lusty coquette, Alicia ( Elle Fanning).

Headmistress Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) takes full charge. She is herself charmed by McBurney. One of the funniest lines,however, comes out of her mouth as she tells teacher Edwina to bring the saw and the anatomy book. Fear and prayer mix with suspense to create an odd tone here. Miss Martha feels driven to act. She asks for suggestions, and the girls by in.

The cinematography is pretty: all haze, Spanish moss, and wild garden. The school’s antebellum splendor is punctuated with six huge Ionic columns – all fluted and more welcoming than the monstrous, filigreed, iron gate. Shots of girls playing at the water pump, hoeing lackadaisically, hanging frocks on the clothesline, and singing in the candlelit music room are lovely. Director Sofia Coppola has an eye for the scene be it French lessons or firelight brandies. For me, Coppola elicited the mushroom picker in Truffaut’s film “The Wild Child”. Six Ionic columns with their staunch flutes seem to hold this edifice aloft. The females under Ms. Martha ultimately do the same.

1864 Virginia has these Southern belles calling the Union soldiers “blue bellies” and vocalizing that their charge could be dangerous. Rape and rapine are both feared. McBurney says that he is pleased to be a prisoner. This soon changes as he lay on their fainting couch. The sounds of water splashing and cloth being rung out, and the in and out of breath, soft hummings and giggles and window peerings set the stage, and remind us of the quiet of this century. Birdsong and cannon booms mingle. Cicadas win out, and rise again.

The corporal has lines galore: ” Tell me a little about yourself? I have never come across such delicate beauty.” If the roses and flowers of this school need trimming, he sharpens his tool to assist. “I have missed being with you”, our wounded soldier whispers to Edwina. He is found in Alicia’s bed before his words evaporate. McBurney’s leg is re-mangled when Edwina pushes him down the stairs. Once he awakens to his fate he screams the question: “Are you ladies learning about castration?” He shoots down a crystal chandelier in his fury, yet Colin Farrell does not seem like a real threat. The women are in control. As they wait under the Ionic facade, for the Confederate soldiers to take the body away, we wonder why they needed to tie the help sign around the iron gate. The women have this!

“Twentieth Century Woman”

Mike Mills’ movie, “Twentieth Century Women”, is the perfect movie to capture what this decade of over-scheduling mothers has lost~ that “go with the flow” feeling. Mills as writer/director and graphic artist perfectly captures the late seventies when we understood that being in perfect life-control  was an illusion.

Annette Bening completely inhabits her role as Dorothea Fields, a single mother with a budding, teenage son ( Lucas Zumann). Her easy live-in-the-moment style as boarding-house matron is challenged by her anxiety over providing what her son Jaime may need. His rebelliousness in forging creative excuses to skip school being one danger sign. He hands in a note that says he is doing volunteer work for the Sandinistas.  She asks for help from her two tenants: Abby (Greta Gerwig ) and William ( Billy Crudup). Julie ( Elle Fanning) adds to the commune by frequently sleeping platonically  with Jaime. This is a paen to  beautiful eccentricity. ( Cynthia, Caroline, Sheila~ I thought of you.) We have lost that ” live in the moment” vitality by over-planning.

Billy Crudup, as William, would be seen as a slacker in today’s age. “Why doesn’t he start his own renovation company? ” , a 2017 entrepreneur might ask. His hunky looks and hippie sensitivity remind me of a few men from my past. He makes his own shampoo,  and no doubt his own candles. One of my favorite scenes is where he attempts to show Dorothea how to meditate.

Nostalgic as this film may be for some, it brings to question the idea that success at any cost will disappoint.   Self-interest has its limits for happiness. Raising a child takes the village, and communal aid should be offered as support. While never preachy, “Twentieth-Century Women” holds up these values. Losing  them is not a good idea.

The cinematography is quirky in this film, often a frame within a frame. The interior sets with backdrops of colorfully painted walls show Dorothea’s bohemian flair. The initial aerial shot of teal green tidal pools  is as unusual as the almost animated, hand-colored  VW beetles zooming the winding roads of Santa Barbara.  Director Mills was a graphic artist and it shows.

Bening seems effortless inhabiting Dorothea ~ wearing Birkenstocks, chain-smoking Salems, and  exhibiting Mother Earth flair. She invites everyone to dinner. Her voiceovers pick up the details of the day. She has read ” Watership Down” and hyperventilated in ecstasy when  President Jimmy Carter gave  his ” Crisis of Confidence” speech. She is delightful to watch.

Elle Fanning is the scaffold-climbing Julie. The daughter of a therapist mother, Julie likes to play therapy like Jeopardy. Bening delivers an understated, ” Do you know that you are not actually a therapist?” with witty aplomb. Again, she is delightful to watch.

Greta Gerwig is Abby, a punkish feminist who introduces ” Our Bodies Ourselves” and Scott Peck’s glimmerings to her housemates. She is being treated for cervical cancer and occupies herself with photographing artistic shots of her few possessions. Again, Bening is terrific as she chastises Abby for feeding her son hardcore feminism that is just too much for him.

Lucas Zumann is a sweet Jaime. He explains away most of his mother’s ideas and actions by saying that she was a Depression baby. He routinely checks the stock markets with her. He worries that she is depressed and wishes to foist him off on others. He wishes her to be happier. Dorothea helps him bleach his hair and metaphorically practices breathing in and letting go. She laments that only others get to see her son out in the world as a person.

Dance and music interweave with the small details of boardinghouse life. Voiceovers tell us what becomes of each character. This is truly a 1970’s film. Nothing much happens but the flow of life, and that is enough.

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