The Beguiled : Sofia Coppola's Dark Turn

Ben Rothstein/Focus Features

The director trades whimsy for Southern gothic in her new film.

Sofia Coppola has mastered the kind of impressionistic cinema that American directors usually leave to Europeans. Her female protagonists meander, blithe and naive, through films that feel like crosses between a still life and a killer mixtape passed secretly among friends. So it might come as a surprise to hear that the auteur of feminine flânerie studied up on Hitchcock’s Notorious for her latest film, opening June 30.

“I really enjoyed having a real plot to follow, because I don’t usually!” Coppola says with an airy laugh as she describes The Beguiled, her remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 movie, which starred Clint Eastwood. That plot: A wounded Union soldier finds his way to a Confederate girls’ boarding school at the end of the Civil War, in a pastel landscape of Spanish moss, wrought-iron gates, and candelabras. Gentility soon gives way to treachery: The Beguiled is firmly planted in the Southern-gothic idiom, which has required Coppola to take her signature style in new directions. “There’s more dialogue,” she jokes. “I usually don’t have dialogue.”

What finally drew Coppola to her dark side and to well-worn conventions of genre filmmaking? “I think I was just intrigued by the premise because it’s so loaded. It’s such a hotbed of sexual repression and power struggles,” she says. Tensions mount among her leads—Kirsten Dunst, Nicole Kidman, and Elle Fanning—as they gravitate toward Colin Farrell’s seductive, charismatic soldier. “I always like the hierarchies between women. Whenever there’s a group, there’s the dynamics between them, trapped together. It’s fun to delve into that.”

But from another angle, The Beguiled fits neatly into her filmography. Once again Coppola has captured a particular, female point of view: the ingenue lost and unsure, enchanted by life’s beauty as she hovers over a dangerous precipice. Coppola’s mastery of light comes from her appreciation of darkness. From modern Tokyo (Lost in Translation) to ancien régime France (Marie Antoinette) and now to the Civil War–era South, all that really changes is the setting.