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Sofia Coppola makes 'The Beguiled' a Southern Gothic tale all her own

Sofia Coppola’s low-key personal style and soft-spoken demeanor can make it easy to overlook that she is among the world’s most celebrated contemporary filmmakers. Her movies float gossamer light, though anchored by a steely will — not unlike the director herself.

She won an Oscar for the screenplay to 2003’s “Lost in Translation” and received a director nomination for it as well — one of only four women ever nominated for the Academy Award for director. Her 2010 film “Somewhere” won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Her new picture, “The Beguiled,” will have its world premiere next month as part of prestigious main competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Set during the Civil War, it features a wounded Union solider (Colin Farrell) who finds refuge on the grounds of a Southern girls school whose residents include Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning. As Farrell’s character convalesces, it becomes increasingly unclear whether he is manipulating his female caregivers or whether they are playing out their own power games through him.

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Coppola’s movie is based on the 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan, previously adapted for film in 1971 by director Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood. After watching the original at the suggestion of her longtime production designer Anne Ross (also an executive producer on “The Beguiled”), Coppola found herself unexpectedly haunted by the story, which lingered in her mind.

“I just thought the premise was so interesting, because the story of power between men and women was such an interesting, loaded topic, and this premise really heightened it with this setting during the Civil War,” the 45-year-old director said. “The women were raised to be these perfect feminine creatures there for men, and then all the men disappear.”

Where Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” was notoriously playful in its treatment of its period setting, particularly with its use of more contemporary pop music, the filmmaker said her approach on “The Beguiled” was different.

“It’s more grounded in the period, but we tried to make it relatable,” she said. “Especially with the costumes, I really wanted to emphasize that lacy, feminine world and the Southern gentility of these women. They don’t wear the big hoops under their dresses anymore because there is no one to entertain, so they wear these long dresses you could wear today.”

Coppola said that while shooting at the historic Madewood Plantation House in Louisiana, the film inadvertently gained a more contemporary influence.

Portions of Beyoncé’s longform “Lemonade” video were shot at the same location, and Fanning and Dunst re-created an image of Beyoncé and Serena Williams posing on an ornately carved chair that was posted online. Both images have an enigmatic mix of languid sexuality and forceful feminine power.

“I didn’t see ‘Lemonade,’ but I saw the chair and it was explained to me,” Coppola said with a light laugh. “Definitely, we had a bunch of references, and there is that kind of feminine, pastoral world of faded nature that the movie starts in, but then I love that it takes a dark turn.

“I was really excited about the whole Southern gothic genre and really embracing that. Especially when they were in their long white nightgowns at night with their candelabras, I got so into it. That was a fun element to get into, the Southern gothic style and the challenge of how to do that in my own way, to find my own style within that genre.”

Coppola has often worked with young or unknown performers, capturing pivotal performances from Dunst, Fanning, Scarlett Johansson and Emma Watson. But other than Bill Murray, she has rarely worked with seasoned, full-on movie stars of the likes of Kidman or Farrell. Coppola admitted that she had Kidman in mind when writing her screenplay and added that to see the actress bring the role to life was even more than she could have imagined.

“I don’t want to say intimidated, but she was something new, and she’s such an experienced, talented actress,” Coppola said. “I think she’s unique. It was like watching a virtuoso or an incredible athlete. We’d do a scene, and she’d have five different emotions going on at the same time.”

Coppola said she was excited to see new works by Lynne Ramsay and Jane Campion that will also be premiering at Cannes. For Coppola, in the time since her feature debut, 1999’s “The Virgin Suicides,” the conversation around female filmmakers has amplified, making her less of a lonely outlier as someone bringing to the screen stories of the interior and emotional lives of women.

“I just wanted to make what was interesting to me, and I hoped that there were like-minded people that would connect with it,” Coppola said. “I didn’t feel alone, I felt glad to be part of the film conversation. I just think we all want to see different points of view, and all you can do is try to put yours out.

She added, “I feel like all I can do is keep making my films.”

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mark.olsen@latimes.com

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