This month: Sofia Coppola’s Southern gothic; Terrence Malick’s love songs; David Lynch in profile
The Beguiled, Song To Song, The Shepherd, David Lynch: The Art Life
The Beguiled In 1971, Don Siegel’s Civil War drama The Beguiled starred Clint Eastwood as a wounded Yankee soldier given sanctuary at a girls’ boarding school in rural Virginia. It was one of Siegel and Eastwood’s most unusual collaborations – part Western, part Southern gothic horror.
For her latest film, Sofia Coppola has returned to Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 source novel and modified the story’s focus. This time, the events that take place at the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary For Young Ladies are viewed from the perspective of the headmistress (Nicole Kidman) and her cast of female teachers and students (who include returning Coppola associates Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning). Coppola retains the genre trappings of Siegel’s film, but her interests lie in the dynamics between a tight-knit group of women and the destabilising influence of an intrusive male presence. There are tonal shifts, too. Siegel’s film played as a lurid romp, while Coppola favours a languorous, hazy tempo – closer, perhaps, to the woozy ambience of The Virgin Suicides or Lost In
Translation. While Eastwood’s corporal John McBurney was a cold-eyed predator, his latest incarnation – played by Colin Farrell – is cunning and caddish, working whatever angle he can for his own advantage. Poisoning, amputation and more follow.
Both Kidman and Farrell are on splendid form. Kidman’s Martha balances her prim sense of decorum with growing sexual attraction to this injured interloper, while Farrell delivers charm bombs with maximum impact. While Coppola spends much of the film’s early part lingering on the mist wreathed landscape and candlelit rooms, the third act tips into ripe psychodrama: “Go to the smokehouse, get the saw!” BABY driver It’s hard to imagine Baby Driver getting past the pitch stage without director Edgar Wright’s previous successes. Rather like Ben Wheatley’s recent Free Fire, it’s a paper-thin spin on a familiar genre – played knowingly when a more straightforward treatment would be perfectly acceptable.
Wright’s film opens with an elaborately staged heist. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a young getaway driver whose high-speed escapes are scored by a playlist on his iPod: “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion; The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat”; Blur’s “Intermission”. Baby is part of a rotating team of bank robbers – who also include Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx – under the employ of a loquacious criminal mastermind, drolly played by Kevin Spacey. You might think pre-existing tensions exist between these crooks; you’d be right. You might also think that Baby’s plan to do one last job before he’s out would backfire; you’d also be right. And on it goes, whatever. The references are Tarantino – the pasticheur – rather than, say, Walter Hill, Peter Yates or Sam Peckinpah. Wright seeks to distract from the thinness of the plot with his frenetic car chases and ear-popping soundtrack – there are 70 songs, no less. But is this enough?
A one-take shot, where Baby goes to fetch coffee for the gang and avoids a number of potentially hazardous pitfalls, would be considerably improved by two men – perhaps played by Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes – carrying a ladder across the road with a tub of white paint balanced in its middle.
Song to Song Lately, Terrence Malick has been working to a theme. 2012’s To
The Wonder and 2015’s Knight Of Cups both focused – if that’s the appropriate word when discussing the gauzy, ambient environments Malick creates – on partners wapping romances. He returns to that set-up again in Song To Song, which takes place amid the music scene in the director’s adopted hometown of Austin, Texas. There, Malick’s heightened, melancholic rush of imagery and poetic inner monologues are interspersed with cameos from – hey, you guys! – Iggy Pop, John Lydon and, in particular, Patti Smith.
The film’s setting is SXSW, where Rooney Mara’s aspiring musician becomes involved with both Michael Fassbender’s producer and his protégé, an upcoming singersongwriter played by Ryan Gosling. Around this central trio a story – of sorts – coalesces about young artists struggling to make their mark and interpolate their dreams
and ambitions into reality. His leads are joined by a typically starry supporting cast including Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett and – a standout – Holly Hunter, who plays the earthy, plain-speaking mother of one character. As ever with Malick, there is the tendency to snigger at the unashamedly romantic, philosophical questing. “Am I a good person?” asks Mara. “Do I even want to be me? Or just seem like one so people will like me?” But find the film’s pulse and it’s hard not to be seduced by its fluid lyricism and the swooping camera of three-time Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki. There is much here that’s exhilarating.
the shepherd For the first 20 minutes or so of Jonathan Cenzual Burley’s excellent film, you might be forgiven for thinking you were watching a National Geographic documentary. We see Anselmo, the titular shepherd, rise with dawn. Once his ablutions are complete, he heads out into the rising son with his herd of goats and trusty sheepdog, Pillo. In the evening, he returns home. It is a solitary, almost silent existence – the only dialogue is the gruff morning greeting Anselmo gives Pillo. But by the end, The Shepherd has been imperceptibly transformed into something approaching a thriller. A developer offers to buy his land, but Anselmo declines – he has known no other life and, aged 56, he is not inclined to change now. This aggravates his neighbours, who desperately want to sell off their adjoining plots. Anselmo finds himself harassed. Violence unfolds.
Burley – who also shot, edited and coproduced the film – has done a wonderful job here. The footage of Anselmo, walking the flat, unforgiving landscape of Castille, is beautifully composed and filmed. Miguel Martín, meanwhile, is splendid as the inscrutable Anselmo. The patrons of his local bar tease him for not having a TV or phone – instead he chats about Dickens with the town librarian, on whom he has a sweetnatured crush. It is very cosy, really, until Anselmo’s neighbours begin to turn on him. Burley is very good at shading his characters. Is Anselmo simply intransigent? Are his neighbours motivated solely by greed? This kind of nuanced filmmaking is good for the story. Burley’s de facto bad guys – led by the local abattoir-owner (Alfonso Mendiguchía) – have their own problems to contend with. Whether that excuses their actions, however, is another matter.
DAVID LYNCH: the Art Life Lynch’s work since 2000 has found the director slipping deeper into a creative rabbit hole. Since Mulholland Drive Lynch has directed only one film, 2006’s Inland Empire, preferring instead to concentrate on experimental short films or, in 2010, a memorably strange Dior campaign, Lady Blue Shanghai. Lynch’s return to the mainstream with the revived Twin Peaks series has been welcome – not least because it has found him once again grappling with wild fantasies and complex elaborations on a grand scale. Jon Nguyen’s fascinating documentary unearths the roots of Lynch’s creativity. In voiceover, the director talks us through his upbringing in Montana and Idaho, and his relocation to Philadelphia to pursue a career as a painter. While Lynch is usually an enigmatic presence, here he speaks candidly about his childhood bouncing around agreeable middle-class suburbs – a sensitive, slightly eccentric adolescent, he never entirely found his niche until he turned to film. A move to California was propitious – Lynch based himself in a set of disused stables. “What a gift that was,” he says. “I could imagine a whole world outside. It didn’t exist, but it really would be such a world.”
Lynch’s artistic urges were fostered by his mother, a progressive figure in 1950s America. “I didn’t think anything of it, but I had tremendous freedom,” says Lynch. Much of this backstory is illuminated by grainy 16mm footage and black and white photographs, while in the present day Lynch potters around his studio in the Hollywood Hills, daubing muddy clay on a canvas or sketching with charcoal. His infant daughter, Lula, makes a scene-stealing cameo, where together they plant a candle on a plasticine birthday cake. “Hot dog!” Lynch says.
The Beguiled tips into ripe psychodrama: “Go to the smokehouse, get the saw!”
For whom the belle tolls: Nicole Kidman in The beguiled