A couple of years ago, when interviewing Sofia Coppola for a forthcoming book, I told her how much I loved the male objectification in her films.
"Yeah, I love that." she said with relish. "Have you seen The Beguiled?"
I had seen Don Siegel's 1971 movie starring Clint Eastwood as a Union soldier stuck at an Southern girls' school, and knew just what she meant. That film treats Eastwood as a sex object from all of the women's points-of-views, and maneuvers the audience to an uncomfortable edge of wondering whether the women are using Eastwood or whether the male filmmakers are exploiting the women characters, turning them into sex-starved freaks. It is messed up in a fascinating way.
So it was no surprise to hear that Coppola was remaking the film from a totally female gaze. Her gorgeous, candle-lit, and perfectly perverse version of The Beguiled premiered at Cannes to an enthusiastic response. She is well-schooled in movie history, but she rarely shows off her knowledge like peers Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson. The Beguiled is Coppola's most clearly cinephilic film, and it's also her most overtly feminist, a delicious retort to Siegel's original.
Nicole Kidman plays the middle-aged school mistress Miss Martha as a gorgeous woman who has lost her love in the war. She is clearly both the oldest and most beautiful woman in the school, even more attractive than Kirsten Dunst as a young teacher and a Elle Fanning as a blossoming and scheming student. This is in marked contrast to the Siegel version in which the teacher is played by a frumpy Geraldine Page. In that version, when Page exacts revenge against the horny and amoral soldier, it's clearly because she's a frustrated older woman past her prime. In Coppola's version, her motivations are more opaque and more nuanced. Instead of revenge, it could be said she's protecting her girls from his sleazy advances.
The Dunst version of a teacher, too, is a clever update, in one of the most interesting and rich performances in a career of full of peaks. In the original version, tragedy comes when the teacher and soldier fall in love, as she is a bastion of purity and he is a dog. In Dunst's version of this character, she's carnal and independent, and the soldier is her means of escape. He wants to go West and she wants to leave the South. As such, Coppola became just the latest female filmmaker at this Cannes, in addition to Claire Denis and Jane Campion, whose film focuses on the power and even tunnel vision of extreme femininity and of women united.
On the other side of the political conversation are Benny and Josh Safdie, two directors decided to use the perspective of their own white privilege to tackle issues of race in Good Time. Robert Pattinson gives the best performance of his career as a criminal from Queens trying to bail his mentally disabled brother out of jail, while cavalierly destroying the lives of black folks along the way.
Good Time was the first movie in Competition to have significant talk of winning one of the main Jury prizes (either the Palme d"or or maybe Best Director or Best Actor). The film invokes 1970s and 1980s New York films by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet. It's as beautiful, funny,and heartfelt as their films, and also as macho. It's a complete throwback and update to that era of classic New American cinema and it lives up to or maybe even surpasses its role models. And that reverence makes Coppola's totally female update of one the most dude-centric eras in cinema all the more refreshing.
The Beguiled is a fantasy about a woman-centric world, and by the end of the movie I was having my own fantasies. What if Cannes was a woman- centric world? What if a line-up of past Palme d'or winners didn't include just one woman (Jane Campion) on stage with a more than a dozen men dressed in black tuxedos? What if instead it was all women in multi-colored or pastel dresses and one lone man dressed in black? What if it wasn't male directors and producers roaming the yachts and streets of Cannes accompanied by beautiful, scantily-dressed women? What if Cannes were dominated by powerful women and it was male beauty that was the commodity? Will Cannes reach parity when the streets are crawling with male models?
In the American Pavilion, I overheard a woman director struggling to get her second feature made. She said she missed directing. "I get bored halfway through a project," an older man director responded.
I wished that Cannes was like Miss Martha's school for girls and men like this would be greeted by a group of united "vengeful bitches" who would hobble men like this and make sure they never returned.
The Best Advice Sofia Coppola Received From Her Dad, Francis Ford Coppola: "Don't Wait for Permission"