Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell in The Beguiled (Focus Features)

Besotted, bothered, and bewildered are the Southern belles of Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies. Living in the remote Virginia countryside during the waning days of the Civil War, they harbor wounded Union soldier Corp. John McBurney (Colin Farrell). The household includes headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), teacher Edwina Morrow (an underused Kirsten Dunst), and about half a dozen adolescents and teenagers.

Farnsworth reasons that McBurney should be nursed back to health, after she has removed shrapnel from his leg and sewn up his wounds, before he’s turned over to the Confederate Army. Realizing that he could perish in custody, even if he’s healthy, she elongates his convalescence after taking a group vote. Besides, the school could use a man to help out in the garden now that there are no slaves to run the estate, which looks straight out of Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. Also, he’s not really fighting for the Union cause; he’s a paid Irish-born mercenary.

This is the setup for a highly hormonal, hothouse drama under the Spanish moss, of which there are abundant shots through the sunlit mist. However, writer/director Sofia Coppola has corseted the simmering sexual tension. By far, this is the most conventional and conservative of her six films, from the camera angles to the editing.

It’s based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan and the script for the 1971 screen version, directed by Don Siegel, which would still be rated R today. The screenwriters, of the earlier film, Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, are also given credit along with Coppola. However, she has cut out a lot, namely the sex, which makes for whiplash character transitions. The movie feels like an abridgement of a highly pulpy game of cat and mouse(s). For example, don’t expect a three-way here between Farrell, Kidman, and Dunst.

Instead, the script highlights the macabre humor that’s inherent in the story when the women turn against McBurney after he breaks their trust. Nervous laughter is what Coppola aims for, and the film received it in spades at Cannes, as the females drop the niceties and go mano-a-mano with McBurney. Back in 1971, audiences weren’t so sure how to react; the pan from the New York Times pointed out the unintentional laughter from the audience. Yet deliberately going for laughs undermines the tension in this heavy dose of Southern Gothic.

Based on the press leading up to the film’s premiere, many news articles assumed that Coppola would emphasize the women. If anything, she has bumped them off their pedestals by underwriting their roles, and she positively castrates Colin Farrell’s, ah, part. If you want to witness the power of sexual charisma, watch Clint Eastwood in the Siegel version. The actor, and his director, lay all their cards on the table, so the audience can sit back and enjoy the cruel intrigues as the corporal manipulates the household and takes pleasure in his power. Farrell’s stud is generally a nice guy, and less a man of mystery.

True, the version from the ’70s is over-the-top, one could say whackadoodle, but Coppola has conversely toned down the eroticism; it’s as if everyone has taken a cold shower. Some of Siegel’s subplots have been cut and are not missed, especially one involving incest, but Coppola plays it safe. Slavery is nowhere in sight; the household slave has been cut out of the story, and yet somehow, somebody has the time to whip up an elaborate meal for eight.

Overall, this is the most romanticized version of the Old South in some time, namely because of the casting of Kidman, Dunst, and Fanning, who are all picture perfect in their white muslin dresses, cascading curls and all. McBurney’s dilemma becomes not which frigid spinster can he manipulate but which screen goddess should he bed. Consider that the headmistress role in 1971 was played by character actress Geraldine Page and the scenario changes completely. Siegel’s film was a showcase for Page and Elizabeth Hartman, as Edwina.

The 2017 version was among the 11 films playing at Cannes that were shot on actual 35mm film. A bulk of the story takes place within dark, candlelit interiors, and like its cast, the film always looks gorgeous, bathed in diffused lighting. The narrative remains a roller-coaster ride of a bodice ripper, and after an overlong setup, slowly heats up. Still, it’s never clear why Coppola chose to make this film, or what she was really trying to achieve, other than to beautify a lurid tale.

The Beguiled opens on June 23.