A clear sky beams down over the woods. Mangroves loom against the deep blue. It’s quiet, save for the rustle of deciduous leaves when a breeze rolls through; a girl’s humming rings clear, her feet crackling the brush below with each step. And softly, pulsing against the pastoral scene, a few quiet drumbeats, so quiet they might pass for interference from the corridor outside the theater, a subway rumbling underground below. The camera pans down; the girl is startled by a body in the brush—a wounded soldier. The drumbeats fade, and they begin to talk.
In Sofia Coppola’s new film , music is an uncharacteristically subtle affair. She recruited the French band Phoenix, with whom she has frequently collaborated, to score the Civil War-set film; she had previously used Phoenix music in Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, The Bling Ring, which featured a then-unreleased “Bankrupt!,” and Lost in Translation, and a take from the band’s latest studio album, Ti Amo, was excerpted in a recent Calvin Klein campaign Coppola directed—plus, she’s married to Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars.
“You don’t really need to talk—you know that you like the same things,” Mars said of working with Coppola, speaking over the phone earlier this week. Guitarist Laurent Brancowitz, laughing, offered his take: “What we want to avoid is to be too kind to each other,” he said. “When we start, we always try to bypass Thomas. It’s too hard for him to take the criticism.”
But, by all accounts, The Beguiled presented few such challenges. The band was wrapping up Ti Amo, which debuted June 9—and working on The Beguiled offered a welcome respite from the project. Finishing Ti Amo “was harder” than scoring the film, Brancowitz said. “The last month working on our album was very stressful, and to be able to do this as a side project really helped us survive the process of finishing our album—so poetic and easy and gratifying.”
Brancowitz estimated there are just eight musical cues throughout the hour-and-a-half-long film, and even that number sounds high. Its softness, really, can’t be understated, cut through with a military edge. It effectively divides the film in two movements: the charming, romantic first half and the more menacing, cabin-in-the-woods second act. In The Beguiled, the young girl Amy, a student at a private boarding school for girls in rural Virginia, stumbles on a wounded Union soldier named McBurney (Colin Farrell) in the woods. She brings him home, where the headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) tends to him. His presence in the house, long starved for male attention, creates some tension—midway through the film, McBurney gets in an argument and tumbles down the stairs. It’s serious.
Here, a low synthesizer drone kicks in just after Kidman’s character requests the anatomy textbook, planning an impromptu amputation. It builds as the women bury the corporal’s leg in the back yard—for a moment, seen from a distance, we think McBurney himself has died, not an implausible outcome to the misbegotten surgery—but the music grinds to a halt as the scene cuts back to his bedroom, where he lies sweat-soaked on his bed.
“The shot is from really, really far and you build the tension. It’s such a great scene for the music to do the job,”Mars explained. “It’s almost sound effects.”
After that mid-act feint, Coppola’s Chekhovian gun—a literal one—does finally go off, and here, the Phoenix-devised score finally bursts forth. Mars described the climax as the “plat de résistance” of the score—an excerpt from Monteverdi’s “Magnificat,” slowed down 800 percent, its horns and chorus pushed to their very limit. The band implemented a new program that allowed them to stretch the track farther than software would usually permit before it started to break down, resulting in a sound that’s “almost synthetic but it’s also organic,” Brancowitz said. The Monteverdi piece, among the “very first examples of western music as we know it,” according to Brancowitz, was, conveniently, also the first piece the band tested in the closing scene. “Magnificat” was a piece Phoenix already loved; distorting it beyond recognition was the logical next step.
“It has something real. The characters could know this particular piece,” Brancowitz said. But they wouldn’t know it like this—though The Beguiled also features numerous diegetic musical interludes, its score largely comprises synthesizer tones and percussion.
Coppola has frequently anachronistic or otherwise out-of-place songs to create a mood, rather than a sense of period or place—so much so, it’s become a kind of trademark. All scores, in some sense, attempt to highlight a specific mood, yet usually it’s within the confines of the rules a film has already set out. In Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, for example, Phoenix makes a cameo, playing one of their own songs with period instruments—but then again, in the same movie, Coppola defied conventions by outfitting the titular young queen in Chuck Taylors and soundtracking her escapades with Bow Wow Wow and Aphex Twin.
“I know this as a musician: When you nail something and you get so much attention for it, you want to strip that away and prove, mostly for yourself, that you don’t need that,” said Brian Reitzell, Coppola’s longtime music supervisor, likening this phenomenon to Coppola’s own pivot away from maximalist soundtracks for The Beguiled. “It allows you to evolve.” Reitzell first worked with Coppola on her first feature, The Virgin Suicides, whose score was composed by the French band Air; The Beguiled was only the second film (after 2010’s Somewhere) for which he hadn’t overseen the music—simply because there wasn’t much need for such a minimalist score.
In the absence of much extradiegetic accompaniment, the film sounds just as solitary, as sequestered as these women are, isolated from society and awaiting—and fearing—passing soldiers to pick up spare bits of news and maybe a gun cartridge. Theirs is a quiet existence, and intentionally so, for any sound could garner unwanted intrusion into their garden and their beds. Yet it’s also a surprising development from a director whose films have been marked—for better and, critically, worse—by their use of pop songs. There are moments where, this being a Coppola film, the viewer expects long tracking shots to be punctuated by a primal scream or a few rapped bars. Instead: silence.
And, by contrast, the script is far more effusive than Coppola’s previous efforts. “We never put music over dialogue,” Reitzell explained of his previous work with Coppola. “When people are talking, you let them talk.” The Beguiled implements this in reverse: In the absence of music, the characters talk—a lot. The film also features one of the more gruesome medical scenes to be seen in a Coppola film, inverting her highly stylized, glossy treatments. It’s not obsessively cool—it’s campy. It’s a Coppola film in reverse.
It presents a dichotomy, depending on what you see as the natural state of film: Either the film is silent, and any score or soundtrack is an embellishment; or film is soundtracked, and stripping it away leaves it bare and shivering. How do you score uncanny silence? Or, alternately, how do you know when to pull the brakes on pop music?
Yet for the band, this quandary was resolved by Coppola herself: “Sofia really set a frame to the work,” Mars said. (Reitzell described the precision of her vision as “expertly curated.” There are some risks to such commitment to aesthetic, as recent criticism of the film has revealed.) “The more limits, the better—the more it forces us to be more precise.” Coppola pointed out the moments that needed some accompaniment, citing Brian Eno’s ambient work as a reference. For previous films, Coppola had compiled a scrapbooked mood board she presented to her collaborators, but even her references were more edited for The Beguiled.
“We would have preferred to have zero music until the end, so we didn’t have to pull back,” Brancowitz said. “We had to provide.”
Hear the best advice Sofia Coppola ever got from her dad, Francis Ford Coppola: