22 August

Interview with Sofia Coppola: all you need to know about her new movie The Beguiled

 

With The Beguiled, for which she won Best Director at this year’s Film Festival in Cannes, Sofia Coppola has once again produced a portrait of women. Fascinating and elegant, like all her work, it is carried by magisterial performances from Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman.

By Olivier Joyard

Inez & Vinoodh/Trunk Archive/PhotoSenso

Artists are often acutely aware that explaining their work is part of their job. But with Sofia Coppola that side of things isn’t so clear. To decipher her films and try to understand the meanderings of her desire, you sometimes have to read between the lines, building bridges between her words. At this May’s Cannes Film Festival, where she was showing her sixth feature film, The Beguiled (which won Best Director – the first time for a woman since 1961!), the 46-year-old, as soft and mysterious as ever, admitted that from the start her oeuvre has always dealt with the same themes – stories of women in which melancholy dominates and fire crackles under ice. Adapted from the novel by Thomas Cullinan and from Don Siegel’s cult 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood, The Beguiled tells the story of a Yankee soldier’s arrival in an isolated girls’ boarding school during the American Civil War. Hazy and fascinating, like most of Coppola’s movies, it nonetheless announces a new period in her work, because in this latest opus the director who made The Virgin Suicides films women of all ages, from children to matriarchs. In an idyllic setting that turns out to be more menacing than it at first seems, she directs two of her favourite actresses, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, as well as the marvellous Nicole Kidman for the first time. Numéro talked to her about the inspiration behind the film and the place of creative women in a world that still won’t look them in the eye.

 

NUMÉRO: We already met in Cannes back in 1999 when your first feature The Virgin Suicides came out. The Beguiled makes me think of that movie…

Sofia Coppola: It makes me think of it too. I started to remember the aesthetic of The Virgin Suicides, those girls shut up in a house, wearing pale dresses… What these two films have most in common is perhaps the mystique of the feminine, even if I think that The Beguiled addresses the mystery between masculinity and femininity in a more mature way. This time the women take action. They rebel.

 

At the beginning of the movie, during a French lesson, your heroines repeat in chorus, “Nous sommes des filles.” Is this a statement of intent for you – representing the feminine?

For the French lesson we needed to find words that were simple and easy to understand. I didn’t think I was producing a manifesto, but unconsciously you’re probably right, it’s not an accident if they say those words. I started wanting to make The Beguiled after seeing the original movie by Don Siegel, which came out in 1971. Ann Ross, my artistic director, didn’t stop talking about it, telling me I should do a remake. I had no intention of doing a remake, but I ended up watching the movie and it stayed in my mind. The atmosphere – a girls’ boarding school in the middle of nowhere – really captivated me… In the original film, the main point of view is the soldier’s. I thought it would be interesting to inverse that and to tell the same story from the point of view of the women, to enter into their world…

 

How did you manage to do that technically?

I show Colin Farrell’s character from the point of view of women who are charmed by him, without realizing he’s dangerous. Eventually they find out, and we find out with them. His skin sets off a deep emotion in Nicole Kidman’s character when she cleans and dresses his wound. There’s a sexual tension. I wanted to listen to the story of these women and imagine what they felt during the war, in the 19th century, cut off from the rest of the world. It was an opportunity to examine the power dynamic between the sexes in a very special context.

 

You’ve often examined relations between the sexes in your films, but this time it’s much more direct.

It was really this story and these themes that attracted me. But I couldn’t tell you why. You never really know why you do something. Perhaps I wanted to film women who were fighting their own desire. But having said that, it’s not my job to analyse my own work.

 

Is it a feminist film?

I don’t like labels, even if I see what you mean. But the word “feminist” has been so instrumentalized… What is certain is that I made a film about complicated women. You can use whatever word you like to describe that reality.

 

What were your visual sources?

At the beginning I was thinking of Peter Weir’s movie Picnic at Hanging Rock, with its rather 70s atmosphere of young girls in nature, of period frocks in the fields, a rather soft and feminine aesthetic, non-threatening. I also watched Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, with Deborah Kerr, before looking at Southern Gothic and all those 60s movies with girls in nightdresses carr ying great heavy candelabra… I looked at certain photographs – William Eggleston’s in particular, for his treatment of pallor. I like playing with this atmosphere, which little by little is transformed as the film takes a harder and more violent turn. 

Inez & Vinoodh/Trunk Archive/PhotoSenso

 

“I wanted to go against the famous male gaze that objectifies women. Women want to see an image of themselves that’s a bit different, I can feel it. I try not to be political in my work, but strong women interest me, so I tend to foreground them.”

 

In The Beguiled, the way nature is filmed renders it both lovely and oppressing. How did you and your cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd work together to produce such sublime shots?

I love working with Philippe, he’s a true artist. We chose locations that would be the most evocative of a lost and hazy world, thinking only of the big screen. We used 35 mm film, which is very rare these days. We wanted to emphasize nature and this extremely isolated house. Before a shoot, I always put together a lookbook which I can show to everyone involved. This time, Ann Ross and I did it together.

 

It’s very moving to see Kirsten Dunst back in one of your films…

I hadn’t worked with her since Marie Antoinette, ten years ago…

 

Working with her every ten years means you get to watch her grow.

I adore her as an actress, and I like the idea of capturing her at different stages in her life. When we first worked together, she was 16. Now she’s in a totally other phase of her career. For this film I asked her to play a character who is very unlike her in real life, because Kirsten is much less repressed. She takes on her roles with a lot of emotion, which always impresses me.

 

And what about Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman?

I’d worked with Elle on Somewhere, in which she played the daughter of Stephen Dorff. I find her very exciting to watch, full of life and always funny. I think she’s a very natural actress who stands out from her generation. Giving her the role of a young woman who’s discovering herself intrigued me – and I wasn’t disappointed. I knew she would bring a certain style and distance. As for Nicole, I wanted to see her as the matron of all these girls. I loved her in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For [1995], to which she brought an off-the-wall, disturbing humour. She’s a brilliant actress.

 

Nicole Kidman recently produced the series Big Little Lies and spoke a lot about her search for well-written female characters, which aren’t easy to come by in Hollywood. Your film is part of this quest. Are you interested in a female view of the body and of dramaturgy?

Calvin Klein recently asked me to shoot an underwear campaign and I wanted to work from a female perspective, to go against the famous male gaze that objectifies women. Women want to see an image of themselves that’s a bit different, I can feel it. We need to have several points of view, it’s becoming really necessary. I try not to be political in my work, but strong women interest me, so I tend to foreground them.

 

How do you feel about your creative life? Do you have new projects in the pipeline?

After each movie I need to take a break so as to recharge and understand what I really want. I don’t rush on to the next project for fear that I’ll miss my chance if I don’t get a move on. In any case, I’m used to working on the margins of the Hollywood system. Everyone I know is doing series right now. But I don’t know. I see that opportunities to make films like mine are becoming scarcer. It’s always a fight. This film was a fight, despite the cast, despite my experience. The times are very conservative where the big screen is concerned. Even five years ago it was different. Perhaps the coming of streaming will change things, time will tell. I talked about this with my friend Tamara Jenkins, because we’re both trying to get our projects off the ground at the same time. We came to the same conclusion: it’s always difficult to make films that aren’t like all the others and which won’t necessarily fill the multiplexes. In that sense perhaps I’m political, but more in action than in words.

 

The Beguiled, by Sofia Coppola, out on 23 August.

 

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