The Beguiled : Fading Magic

The Beguiled

So in a recent episode of one of my favourite film discussion shows, Welcome to the Basement“, they briefly discussed the film Marie Antoinette (2006, Dir. Sofia Coppola), a Mr Craig Johnson declares the great theme of Sofia Coppola’s work to be “poor little rich kids”. I haven’t seen enough of her work to agree with this statement, but I can say this does run through The Beguiled (2017, Dir. Sofia Coppola).

Taking place in an etiquette school for “Southern Belles” (upper class Southern American girls), a deserting and wounded Yankee soldier, Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is taken in by hardened headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). Staying in the house is the softer teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), and a variety of students, key to them is the precocious and trouble starting Alicia (Elle Fanning), and the young student who first finds McBurney, Amy (Oona Lawrence). A handsome man, in a house full of women, things begin to get heated as the subtle competitions for affections kick off.

But this isn’t just an erotically charged drama. As the cauldrons boil over, and McBurney becomes grievously injured, his  arousing demeanour collapses and the sense of tantalising danger he presented is turned inwards, onto the girls. The big focus in this remake of the novel and 1971 adaptation (Dir. Don Siegel) is the presentation of the film from the female perspective, and so we witness McBurney from the outside as the women plot to deal with him, their fears and their conversations. The fluidity of this adaptation very well done, as I only found this information out after watching the film, and did not realise the roles had been somewhat reversed.

Honestly while I saw the film I was intensely caught up in the slow bubbling drama. The first half in particular for me, draws you in with a rope around your neck as you seek every single subtle hint, every glance of the eyes or subtle smile, the film becomes something of a Chinese plate spinning act and the tension builds and builds in this luxurious Southern chamber of a house. Combined with the impending sword of Damocles hanging over McBurney as his wound heals and the threat of being forced back into war, and you have a sleepy fire which is really absorbing.

The technical choices on display also work to convey a very tight if subdued style. The colour palette is one of sepia and pink tones, of dry suns and candle-lit oak rooms. So too is the watchful, voyeuristic camera which peers from corners and darkened spots to observe the comings and goings, the tiny verbal confrontations and competitions everyone is having. The editing too, builds at a steady rhythm, the cuts slow and precise and giving just enough time to be unsettled, to reflect on the possible motivations and outcomes of each power play.

Honestly reading this back there’s a lot to like about this film, and I can say for sure that while watching it I was pretty entranced, caught up in its action. And then in its last moments, I suddenly snapped out of trance and realised; I didn’t like it. Now liking or not liking a film is not a new phenomenon, but I think what was different about this was how rapidly the house of cards began to collapse in my mind. There’s serious pacing issues in the second half (and to a lesser extent the first half), characters make choices without really having enough of a relationship to justify their actions, the film’s droning score is ambient without setting a lot of atmosphere. Just it fell apart in my head from being a unified whole work to being parts of a puzzle which didn’t quite fit together.

I think one of the things I often forget about cinema being an adult is that it’s mainly a lot of technical choices, a lot of creative choices, and a little bit of magic. Cinema is magic because it casts a spell on you, makes you believe in worlds which don’t exist, makes you understand people who never existed, makes you believe that hundreds, thousands of different images made at different times in different locations are all part of one single linear world. And I think with The Beguiled I experienced both the spell, and the accidental reveal of the trick. Like a magician who accidentally reveals the rope behind the curtain, the whole thing drops to a level of mechanical functionality which you can never get back.

If you can see the strings, it can still be excellent, it can still work, but it’s never magical again. I had to write an essay for my university course last year deconstructing the cinematography in another of Sofia Coppola’s works, Lost in Translation (2002), and even through an extensive deconstruction process, I never once lost sight of it being anything but a film I believed in.I know that seems a messy distinction, but its hard to define this kind of feeling since its so mysterious and nebulous, so I’m doing my best. Furthermore I’d still recommend a watch, because a film like this, of a director with a distinctive style whose films are neither shining masterpieces nor grubby trash, work which can be both enjoyed and/or criticised, is what makes up the interesting middle ground of cinema.

I was beguiled by The Beguiled I will confess, in that I was charmed and enchanted by it. I was totally caught up and drawn into it’s world. But it’s almost a victim of its own success in that respect, because, like the characters in the film itself, you can’t be beguiled forever. Eventually you see through the masks we wear, you see the natures and real faces underneath, and once you’ve done that it never quite looks the same. The mysterious aspects disappear, and so does some of its’ magic.

-Alex

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The Beguiled : Fading Magic

Magic in the Air: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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“For all the fantastic beasts disrupting the city, the most dangerous one exists within. ‘A beast that has been created in ways which feel sadly familiar’.” – David Yates (Director) in Inside the Magic: The Making of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Christmas brings a sense of magic with it, so it is only appropriate that a film primarily concerned with magic would be released at this time. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) is directed by David Yates, known for his work on the Harry Potter film series and The Legend of Tarzan (2016) and written and produced by J.K Rowling, who wrote the original book of this film, and the original Harry Potter books. If anyone could have thought of a more appropriate pair to helm this film, I’d be surprised.

The film mostly orbits around one Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne),  a magical beast enthusiast and magizoologist (their term, not mine) who comes to New York in the 1920s, a time rife with inner magical conflicts of dangerous wizards and pseudo-racial conflict between non-magics and magics.In the mix then are thrown Tina (played by one of my favourites, Katherine Waterston), a low-level admin person in the American Ministry of Magic, MACUSA, her sister who can read minds called Queenie (Alison Sudol),  a “No-Maj” (short for no-magic) who wants to open a bakery called Jacob (Dan Fogler), and they race across the city recovering many escaped “Fantastic Beasts” and much more, meanwhile machinations inside the MACUSA from Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a higher up and a bunch of odd cult members who seem to invoke the Salem witch hunts but also the KKK, headed by the adoptive mother, Mary-Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and the kids, Credence (Ezra Miller) and Modesty (Faith-Wood Blaregrove). Also Jon Voight is in it in a political side plot which is just there.

If that was slightly complex and difficult to wrap your head around, then you experienced some of the similar plot induced disorientation I found watching this. The film whips up a series of spinning plates, and it took me a hell of a lot of concentration to keep up with it, mainly due to its penchant for introducing brand new magic elements almost every five minutes, new beasts or potions or elements, honestly it was a dizzying array of fireworks at points which flew by so fast that key elements were completely forgotten by the time of their eventual use and reveal. The world building to this planned five film franchise was obviously key here, and it’s almost overwhelming amount of information certainly stretched me, so I’m not sure whether my brain is just getting rusty or whether the kid’s watching it are all completely confused. Perhaps both.

The film largely manages to pull off the plate spinning act due to its charm. A lot of children’s films now seem more geared towards a teenage market, and for all the obsession over superheroes, the general lack of magic surrounding these impossible superhumans has never been more apparent when held up against this film. The film certainly gets a lot of mileage out of the beautifully rendered magical beasts, but credit goes to the cast as well who manage to become inhabitants in the world, all with varying degrees of success. The core squad of Newt and co. really complement each other and the world around them, whereas Colin Farrell comes out of this more than a little clunky.  It really does exhibit that same spirit which managed to capture the entire globe in the Harry Potter series, which definitely surprised me.

However the film also becomes tonally wild during various points, themes of child abuse and segregation and environmentalism just all emerge and then retreat very quickly, only enhancing the already burgeoning disorientation. It’s not necessarily a giant failing, but the focus on world building forces the direction of the film to jump erratically around, from different themes and tones to such an extent that to this point I still can’t really tell you what the film is about. It’s just a chocolate box, filled to the brim with different treats and different choices, but without presenting anything particularly coherent. It’s texture is so rich and dense, but there are times where its hard to see what’s really important and what’s just set dressing. And the more complex ethical issues certainly become a little more morally confusing (wiping the memories of hundreds of thousands of people as a great thing which doesn’t get questioned at all doesn’t exactly sit well) as the film progresses. Just a kid’s film they will cry, but kids think about things, and kids become adults who think about things. Do we need to look any further than this?

 

I can’t really give it a hard time for simply having too much going on though, especially when it exhibits a Guillermo Del-Toro level of attention to detail in every aspect of its mise-en-scene. The costumes are extravagant and expertly designed, the sets ooze with atmosphere and an incredibly stylised art deco aesthetic that places it in the realm of the magical, because its far too gorgeous to be the real New York of the 1920s, but nevertheless it becomes a gorgeous visual feast.And its core lays a lot of heart and a clear driving psychological core. Nothing is vague or misunderstood, there’s just so much packed in that it’s difficult to take in one viewing.

Honestly I just have a lot of respect for it, even though it creaks and falls apart in places. They really brought the world to life, and its a great ride, a real creation of magic.It’s just brimming with life, with the power of cinema, strong performances in non-cliched and human characters, gorgeous scenery and a strong emotionally rooted story. It won’t ever put time into the pantheon of CINEMA, but I definitely got wrapped up in the magic in a way only cinema can pull off.

It aspires to a hell of a lot, and while it may not hit every part it wants to, if you shoot for the moon and miss, you’ll still be amongst the stars.

-Alex

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Magic in the Air: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them