Shortly after Sofia Coppola’ success at the Cannes Film Festival (where she won best director) her latest effort was the target of criticism for the removal of a black slave character from the story (the character featured in both the 1971 original and the novel). Sofia’s defence was that she didn’t wish to half arse such a serious topic (slavery) and thus focused on the isolation white Southern women felt during the years of the American Civil War. It does seem questionable that a black character would be excluded entirely from a picture set during a war where slavery was the main reason for the fighting, but Coppola’s view of the novel does not deal with that aspect of the war.
In East Virginia, a small group of teachers and students take in a injured Army soldier (Colin Farrell) however his arrival arrouses something within all the women who begin to start pitting themselves aganist each other vying for the soldier's attention.
I know little of the novel and original Don Siegel 1971 film but many reviews mention that Coppola’s dream like version has decided to tell the story of a man entering the repressed world of a group of women from the female perspective. The isolation and loneliness these women felt stems from being cut off from the world and in denial of this changing world. They are suddenly left to fend for themselves as the slaves and men have left, the latter of whom have gone to fight in a war which can be eerily heard in the distance.
Each of the three main female characters are different (the rest have personalities too but given less to do) with Nicole Kidman’s frosty Martha, Kirsten Dunst’s Edwina Morrow, who gives off an air of melancholic loneliness, with a yearning to escape and be desired, and Elle Fanning’s more flirtatious and sexually aware Alice making up the three leading ladies. Whatever the personality, Colin Farrell’s John McBurney is able to manipulate them and their vanities and pit them against each other.
The ability which McBurney has to say the right things, and pit these women against each other is deeply malevolent. He has this perfect ability to charm his way into getting these women to open up (even the cold Martha) and reveal their inner secrets. He also seems to have an unnerving ability so say the right thing, he’s an undoubtedly charming character, but there is a dangerous malevolence to the character's charm that prays upon lonely and repressed women, manipulating them to his intent.
Philippe Le Sourd's old-fashioned frame (1.66 ratio on 35mm stock) and tight camerawork empathises the claustrophobic conditions inside the house, however frequent exterior shots of the traditional southern architecture adds to a slight feeling of repetitiveness (an odd problem for such a short film). Despite this, Sofia Coppola excels wonderfully, opening up the characters and generating a lot of tension in one the most seat squirming dinner times in recent memory.