Cast: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Colin Farrell, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Oona Laurence, Emma Howard
Director: Sofia Coppola
Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Sofia Coppola has made a career out of mining the contradictions of feminine beauty-- the naivety and awkwardness of girlhood, the uncertainty and yearning of early adulthood, the bourgeois privilege of being white and well-off--to such a degree that her films have often been criticized for lacking specificity and substance. From the melancholy of time passing in Lost in Translation, the ironic revisionism of Marie Antoinette, to the detached insularity of Somewhere, Coppola has prioritized tableaux set to dreamy music cues over fully-formed narrative cohesion. When it works, this lack of standard plotting can be liberating since she's free to indulge in certain thematic preoccupations through aesthetic alone. In her misunderstood satire The Bling Ring, for instance, Coppola actually deconstructed teenage privilege; with the idea of how being young, bored, and insanely wealthy can lead to desperation bordering on psychosis.
With The Beguiled, Coppola has made a Civil War-era chamber drama which uses her penchant for naturalism and dreamlike atmosphere to spin a tale of how men attempt to systematically break down the interior lives of women. That she does this with a mixture of languid pacing, evocative closeups, and picturesque mood during the first two acts before swerving into Hitchcockian thriller territory in the final third, is to be applauded for a filmmaker who normally eschews conventional payoffs. This is not to say that the film, adapted from the 1966 Thomas P. Cullinan novel which also spawned a 1971 Don Siegel version starring Clint Eastwood, is necessarily a crowd-pleaser, but it's certainly the most accessible picture Coppola has attempted yet.
Taking place at a Seminary for Young Women in Virginia during the Civil War run by headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), The Beguiled is steeped less in historical accuracy (for one thing, Coppola completely writes the issue of slavery out of her screenplay) and is more interested in an aestheticized movie version of the rural South. During the opening moments, shot with lush beauty by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, we witness pre-teen student Amy (Oona Lawrence) stumbling upon a wounded Union soldier named John McBurney (Colin Farrell) while picking mushrooms in the forest. Once McBurney is brought back to the school to rest and recover, the film becomes a slowly building exercise in how each of the women react to this stranger in differing ways. The school's oldest pupil, Alicia (Elle Fanning) for example, eyes the soldier almost like a school girl crush; her unformed sense of sexual longing simmering with every glance and flirtatious movement. On the other hand, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), one of the teachers, sees McBurney as a possible way out of her monotonous existence.
In it's purest form, The Beguiled is a Gothic psychodrama, but Coppola resists the urge to turn the film into a shrieking example of how men attempt to dominate the "weaker" sex. Instead, she's concocted a rather shrewd feminist-leaning black comedy in which the women are drawn to McBurney for a variety of complex reasons and not simply out of sexual desire. During a rather humorous dinner table scene, for example, the ladies go to great lengths to praise a particular apple pie that McBurney has admitted is his favorite type of desert. One girl says she baked it, another claims to harbor the special recipe, while another still blabbers about it also being her favorite. All of this is staged by Coppola with a keen understanding of editing, comedic rhythm, and a knack for framing her actor's reactions to achieve lived-in authenticity. Of course, it helps that Farrell is able to portray McBurney as a man both charming and intensely brooding. His scenes opposite Fanning, Kidman, and especially Dunst, are charged with an air of sexual tension and tug-of-war social dynamics that speaks to the film's simple, yet elegant, shifting emotional psychology.
The Beguiled eventually has to arrive at it's hairpin resolution, and even though it's a climax we see coming, Coppola still manages to push forward the notion that male dominance, hiding behind demure smiles and ingratiating compliments, is one of society's great evils. By giving each of her women characters agency, Coppola successfully channels an inversion of the usual revenge-thriller trope. Here, women aren't so much consumed by jealousy or hysteria as they are gripped by feminine solidarity, pushed to take extraordinary measures in order to preserve their fragile community. In that sense, The Beguiled is a film about female desire in which the real awakening doesn't involve consummation with a dark and handsome stranger, but rather, hinges on a dish of mushrooms best served cold.