First things first: the sheer weirdness of watching a director whose work up till now has all been characterised by a glacial sheen of emotional remove from her characters and their behavior retelling a story of hothouse Southern Gothic sexuality during the U.S. Civil War - and maintaining that glacial quality! - is all it takes for me to declare Sofia Coppola's remake of the also very weird 1971 Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood film The Beguiled essential viewing.* That Coppola's The Beguiled is a largely excellent film I consider to be, at that point, just icing on the cake.

And quite an excellent film it is at that, but certainly not one likely to win many converts over to the cult of Coppola, a director I frankly adore, and whose films always strike me as far more divisive than they deserve. But that's a different essay: we're hear to talk about what she does with Thomas Cullinan's story of a plantation-turned-girls' school in 1863 Virginia, mostly evacuated do to the uncomfortable nearness of the Union Army. In this version, the school's entire population at present is headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman, who feels like she should have been in a Coppola film long before now), teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), and five young women ranging in age from not yet pubescent to very nearly an adult. And into this closed-off enclave enters a man of some obvious danger: Union Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), with a deep and sure-to-be fatal gash in his leg, who is found in the woods by young Amy (Oona Laurence) and dragged back to the school. Here, he causes different kinds of stirrings to happen, depending on which woman he's interacting with at any given moment, and he knows it, and attempts to use it to his advantage.

For Siegel, this was the stuff of a sweaty, pulpy melodrama, eager to believe the worst of its proxy for American masculinity and the female sex drive alike, and that's why his Beguiled is the one thing Coppola's conspicuously fails to be: an exciting thriller as it springs to its conclusion. The new Beguiled has much the same ending as the book and earlier movie, but it hasn't quite figured out the right tone to make that ending work, and while I'm sure that I wouldn't have felt the same sped-up hollowness in Coppola's third if I wasn't mentally checking the new film against the old, I was, so I did.

That's just about the only place where I'll grant the 1971 film precedence. If Coppola isn't interesting in presenting this as the sordid Southern Gothic that would seem to be obligatory from the log line, it's only because she's got better ideas in mind. This incarnation of The Beguiled is much more of a sustained mood piece, going all-in on the damnedest sense of atmosphere that you could ever hope to see, oppressively atmospheric even by Coppola's standards, and she's always preferred to foreground mood over story, and sometimes even character. Right from The Virgin Suicides, her first (and to my mind, least) feature, 18 years ago now, Coppola has favored scenarios in which her protagonists are driven into states of caged ennui by the environment surrounding them: the staleness of a Michigan suburb; the bright lights and foreign culture of a city where you don't know the language; the glitzy, embalmed husk of a glamorous Hollywood hotel where everything is surfaces. There is undoubtedly truth to the accusation that Coppola only knows how to tell stories of poor little rich girls (and a couple of boys), but she does it so enormously well, better than a lot of filmmakers with more range are able to do anything at all.

And so it continues with the dead plantation of The Beguiled - from which Coppola did indeed remove the book and earlier film's single slave character, a mystifyingly tone-deaf decision that also hurts the narrative structure (the slave is the first character to see through McBurney's hollow charm, without which the reveal that he's a thorough shitheel comes as much too sudden, even with Farrell's best efforts to seed it into the role). But what the film isn't is a long way from what the film is, a beautifully mythic plunge into some primordial jungle hell deep in the American South. And this hell has already done much to trap the women in the film before McBurney's arrival and will apparently do so after his departure, even if he represents a particularly eventful intrusion of violence into their daily lives.

Let's just cut to it: The Beguiled is the best-looking film of the year to date, and I have a hard time imagining that something might top it. The combined efforts of production designer Anne Ross and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd create a spectacular visual playground. We have, to start with, the astonishing fairy tale forest surrounding the plantation, with beams of dusky light driving through the hazy green air, backlighting drapes of Spanish moss, creating a thoroughly unreal atmosphere from the very first wonderful shot (a pan down to a forest path where little Amy wanders pleasantly on her way to meet the Big Bad Wolf). And then we move into the interiors of the school, large expanses of slightly decaying grandeur feebly lit by wavering candles, but otherwise trickling into black-brown haze. As near as I can tell, Le Sourd hasn't used a single electrical light in capturing the images of this profoundly dark film, which feels positively saturated with gloom.

Calling this "moody" or "atmospheric" will have to do only because I can't think of any more intensified adjectives than that. One feels The Beguiled much more than one watches it, and the very formally restrictive compositions that Coppola and Le Sourd employ throughout (every individual space tends to be shot the same way every time we go there) help to trap the characters within their environments even more than the suffocating darkness and textures already do. This is a film about a world in the midst of collapse, a place of all-surrounding darkness that goes beyond seven women being aroused and threatened by a charismatic devil. That story counts for a lot, of course, and it's played to the hilt by an excellent cast (though Dunst is the only person here doing something we've never really seen from her before; the moments she lets some shards of desperate, devouring need to escape the corpse of the South break through her primly sour teacher's shell are among the most potent in the movie), even when the script begins to lose the thread in the last half-hour. But it's the look of the thing - the exhaustingly heavy, ancientness of the American wilderness choking out the life of the present - that gives The Beguiled most of its very satisfying emotional heft.

*"It is not a remake, but a new adaptation of the book", we are assured by the press tour, one of those useful fictions at least as old as the Coen brothers' actually-yeah-it-pretty-much-is-a-remake of True Grit from 2010. Unfortunately for Coppola et al, The Beguiled is not the title of Thomas Cullinan's 1966 novel A Painted Devil. Also, every difference between the novel and the 1971 film is replicated by the 2017 film, with others besides. Also again, the 1971 screenplay is credited as a source. So I really don't understand why they would bother trying to avoid the R-word.