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« Beauty vs Beast: Political Animals | Main | Beauty Break: Michelle Pfeiffer's Cover Girl Comeback »
Monday
Oct162017

The Furniture: A Plaster Haze in The Beguiled

"The Furniture," by Daniel Walber, is our weekly series on Production Design. You can click on the images to see them in magnified detail.

Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is no sprawling epic of the Civil War. The Farnsworth Seminary for Girls, where Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) presides, is no Tara. There are no ballgowns or battlefields. There is only a big lonely house, the seat of a plantation that has decayed into an isolated finishing school for an especially isolated handful of girls.

Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is thrust into this setting, his leg wounded and his uniform bloodied. The resulting tension simmers for days, weeks even, before exploding in nocturnal chaos and violence. All the while the house stands silent, forcing these emotions up and down the stairs and into small, dimly-lit corners. There is a forever haze about this place, though never quite hot enough to break into a sweat.

This tightly-knotted mood owes a great deal to production designer Anne Ross, a frequent collaborator of Coppola’s, as well as art director Jennifer Dehghan and set decorator Amy Beth Silver...

It’s also hard to imagine more perfectly chosen locations. The exteriors were shot at Madewood Plantation House, a National Historic Landmark about 80 miles West of New Orleans. The 1846 Greek Revival mansion was designed by Henry Howard, one of the most important architects of 19th century Louisiana.

The facade and the gate are inseparable, the bombastic ionic columns broken up by the thinner, sharper lines of iron beyond. Their stark, rigid stature suggests a distance between the house and its community. Confederate patrols visit twice, but Coppola obscures the soldiers’ faces and Miss Martha’s countenance is quite restrained. She never opens the gate, instead speaking to the passing officer through the grille.

The balcony, meanwhile, offers its own metaphors. The girls use it to survey the surrounding area, on the lookout for troop movements. It gives the house a maritime air, as if it were a barge adrift in a sea rife with pirates. With no way to steer or even to move, they can only keep an eye on the horizon and pray.

The rooms inside, meanwhile, are less grandiose. Yet they share some crucial DNA with Madewood Plantation. The interiors were shot at the New Orleans home of actress Jennifer Coolidge, also designed by Howard. It dates back to the 1860s, begun before the war broke out and completed after its conclusion. 

It’s not just about appropriate architecture, either. The house was painstakingly restored after Hurricane Katrina, from the foundation up. All of the plaster was replaced by hand. Modern lighting is hidden behind the cornices, old-fashioned push buttons stand in for light switches, and even the toilets and tubs are all pre-1900. (For more about the restoration, including some amazing pictures, check out this article from Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans.)

The plaster makes the perfect backdrop for the limited color palette of the film. It’s as if these characters are living inside a gray Confederate uniform, or perhaps a mausoleum. Their clothes match the walls, which are themselves adorned with vague portraits of stiff flowers and long-gone Southern belles.

etails hint at a former glamour, like this ornate music stand that evokes the fabulous parties of Miss Martha’s memory.

But these are only the crumbs of a former life. In their place is the haze, a commingling of light and shadow. Much of the action takes place in the core of the house, a stairwell with almost no natural light. Miss Martha and the girls go up and down, making their way with candles.

They can barely see each other’s faces, let alone gaze curiously into their own. This lack of self-knowledge is perhaps what leads toward danger and violence. They live within the inscrutable fog of this aging mirror, unable to truly see their reflections. And their survival (if not necessarily salvation) finally comes when they look to each other instead.

previously on The Furniture | more on The Beguiled

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Reader Comments (5)

Fucking love this film. It shows Sofia being what many young filmmakers want to be right now. Masters at their craft. Plus, I'm glad someone is giving Jennifer Coolidge some cred for the fact that it was shot partially at her home and what a beautiful house it is. I hope she gets a small percentage of the film's profits.

October 16, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

This makes me want to watch the film again -- LOVE the idea of the balcony as the steer of a ship.

October 16, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

now i wish jennifer coolidge was in the film, cougaring the bejeebus out of colin farrell

October 16, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterpar

par -- She would bend and snap him!

October 16, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I've been there. These Louisiana plantation homes are beautiful and extremely foreboding; you can easily understand how intimidating it must have been for anyone not a part of the family to be there, especially of course for slaves and indentured servants.

Now that I think about it, 2017 might be the year for foreboding cinema. The Beguiled, Get Out, mother! - these are some of my favorite films of the year and they all have that in common - a sense of impending doom played out marvelously on screen.

October 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

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