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.