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A Conversation with Sofia Coppola on “The Beguiled” at the Harvard Film Archive

Sofia Coppola at the Harvard Film Archive
Sofia Coppola discussed her film, "The Beguiled" (2017) at the Harvard Film Archive on April 16.

On April 16, celebrated director Sofia Coppola sat down for a moderated discussion and a Q&A with an emphatically appreciative audience at the Harvard Film Archive, following a screening of her critically-renowned 2017 film “The Beguiled.” The film is a Southern Gothic drama that explores the quiet hysteria of the lonely teachers and pupils—would-be debutantes—at a girls’ school on a plantation estate in the midst of the Civil War. Their world unravels upon the intrusion of a wounded Northern soldier played by Colin Farrell.

Coppola recalled her initial hesitance to re-make Donald Segal’s 1971 original, referencing her illustrious namesake. She said to a knowing audience, “Growing up in my household, the word ‘remake’ was a bad word.” But she expressed a desire to lend the feminine narrative often drowned out in overarching, male-centric narratives about the period. “I wanted to give these women a fair voice,” she said. She detailed her conscientious deviations from Segal’s version, having heightened the ambiguity of Farrell’s character to allow the audience to inhabit the mindset of the unwitting women. “We’ve all been in situations as women looking at men, like you probably shouldn’t trust him, but you want to,” she said. “I tried to be in their point of view of wanting to think he’s okay.”

Having worked as a costume designer before, Coppola elaborated on her diligent attention to aesthetic and sartorial detail. She commiserated with the women in their wistful delusion, recalling their “pageantry” involving faded dresses and dusty jewelry that they enact in anticipation of Farrell’s much-desired male presence. “They brought out all their dresses from Christmas and now they’re abandoned and totally on their own and they’re still holding onto this lifestyle that doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. “They’ve all had to wash these same dresses over and over, and they’re all kind of blending together, and I thought of them as being almost a bouquet of flowers.” Such exaggerated feminine frills provided visual contrasts to Farrell’s manifestation of rugged manliness. “When he comes, he’s in this faded, delicate, female world, and he’s dark and masculine and scruffy,” she said.

Coppola indulged her newfound fascination with the Gothic genre, elements of which are especially embodied by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), the school’s headmistress. In the film, Kidman wears her hair in wispy tendrils and at one point wields a candelabra. While shooting the film, Coppola recalls perceiving Miss Martha as a character who willfully, nostalgically justifies the soldier’s extended sojourn as a learning experience on entertaining men: “When we were shooting that scene, I was like, ‘Nicole, I really want that shot of you holding the candelabra saying, ‘Bring me the anatomy book.’ I was like, ‘That’s the trailer moment. We have to get that,’” she said. “That character could have been a total joke, a spoof, but Nicole took it seriously and really invested some humanity and made her sympathetic… [Miss Martha] really believed that she was helping these girls.”

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Audience member Marina W. Wang ’19, a professed fan of Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” said, “I have mixed feelings, because I thought there was this nice balance of the dark Gothic element but also humor... But I don’t know how much of the humor is intentional, because some of the dialogue seemed really awkward, and it just wasn’t realistic, but overall it was a great film, and it was definitely entertaining and thought-provoking.”

Coppola discussed the film’s wrought silences and briefly intense moments of sexual tension. “Subtext is always the interesting part of dialogue,” she said. “I’ve always liked the little details… They say so much when someone stands too close, or they almost kiss… Those moments are more impactful to me than full-blown emotions.”

Ilana A.D. Harris ’18, a sound artist, picked up on other eerie effects: The film’s motley soundtrack. She said, “[The credits] said that the music was by Phoenix but the music was inspired by Monteverdi, so [1600s, in addition to eight-plus] parts of moving blocks of vocal sounds is what [Monteverdi] wrote for, manipulated [by Phoenix] into this modern day electronic drone-like incarnation of that—I thought it was the coolest thing. I know Phoenix and Monteverdi but they’re polar opposites.”

“Even just the sound itself—when [Farrell] was sharpening the knife on the spinny-thing, and the water that was being poured, especially in the moments of tension when Nicole Kidman had the hand rag and she would fill it up with water and squeeze it, you could hear the water going swoosh,” Harris said. “So I really liked how [Coppola] used sound… All of the sounds were in very close proximity. Even at the get-go when the girl is walking and humming a tune, even though she walks further away, the tune is immediately very close to you. It was really incredible.”

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