Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” is a movie I would describe as being wonderfully unnerving. Coppola takes her precious time setting up the story to where, when the situation worsens, we are left wondering how the characters can resolve it without anyone getting hurt. In the process, as the situation everyone is involved becomes increasingly chaotic, I couldn’t help but laugh. In a drama, this can be bad as a serious story which becomes laughable means the filmmakers failed in some way, but the laughs here serve as a release because the intensity of the story reaches a fever pitch to where we are unsure of how else to react. Plus, these are the kind of laughs which stick in your throat, and this means you would not laugh at what is going on here were this any other situation.
The word beguiled means being captivated, charmed, delighted, enthralled or entranced, and we see all of this on display right from the start. The movie is based on the novel “A Painted Devil” by Thomas P. Cullinan which in turn was made into a movie in 1971 directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. But while Hollywood has been remake happy for far too long, we know Coppola is going to take this material and make it her own. Plus, unlike other remakes, this one does not serve as a setup for a franchise desperate to match Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.
“The Beguiled” takes us back to the year 1864, three years into the Civil War, in Virginia. While picking mushrooms in the woods, a young girl comes across a wounded soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), and takes him back to the boarding school she is staying at. It is a Southern girls’ boarding school which still has a few students hanging around even as many others have since gone back home, and they live a secluded lifestyle which keeps them from the front lines. Regardless, we can all hear the gunshots and explosions going off in the distance which remind us that while the danger might be far away, it could always spill over to their location at any given moment.
As John recuperates from his injuries, he gets to know the girls at the school much better. They include the headmaster Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), the rather quiet Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst), and the teasingly playful Alicia (Elle Fanning). Time goes on, and John begins to slowly insinuate himself into the girls’ lives as he senses their needs and desires, some of which have long since been repressed. Sexual tension is definitely in the air as the ladies look longingly at John, and Edwina in particular is looking for a way to escape the secluded existence she has been trapped in, but we can all sense from the start that things will not culminate in a satisfactory solution for anyone.
What is brilliant about Coppola’s direction is how she hints at the longings of each character just from a look in their eyes. Furthermore, she is not quick to pass judgment on any of the characters to where we are left to make up our own opinions about them and their actions. Of course, how we view them ends up saying more about ourselves than it does about anyone else. Whereas Siegel’s take on “The Beguiled” may have been quick to cast John McBurney as a villain, Coppola’s version leaves you to decide this for yourself as Farrell gives us a man who is thankful for the help he has received and also unable to keep his libido in check (that’s what I think anyway).
“The Beguiled” reunites Coppola with actresses she has worked with previously. Dunst starred in her films “The Virgin Suicides” and “Marie Antoinette,” and Fanning co-starred in “Somewhere” when she was just 11 years old. Here, they both get to act against type in a way which makes us appreciate their talents in a way we should have already. Dunst, who has played extroverts in a beautifully gleeful way, gives us a repressed and longing performance as Edwina, and it makes us question whether the perspiration on her face is the result of humidity or her strong desires she can only hide for so long. As for Fanning, she gets to portray a young woman entering her sexually aware phase in life, and she clearly relishes in playing someone ever so eager to explore her sexuality with a man, any man.
Coppola also gets to work with Kidman who plays someone religiously stern, but even John can see the longing in heart for something different. Kidman has always been a brilliant actress, and she has not lost any of her power as this movie shows. In her scenes with Farrell, she exhibits a desire she never has to spell out for the audience, and the scene where they are face to face is a wonderfully tense scene as you wonder if they will or they won’t. And as the movie reaches its unnerving climax, it is a gas to see her the devilish look on her face as she calculates how to best deal with the school’s unwanted guest.
After all these years, Farrell remains an infinitely charismatic actor, and he seduces not just the ladies in the movie but the audience as well with what seems like relative ease. While the rest of us men struggle to attract the opposite sex, he succeeds in doing so in a way we can’t help but be infinitely resentful of. Farrell insinuates his character of John McBurney into a situation he thinks he can control, but this is a movie told from a female perspective, and it makes his predicament all the more entertaining as he attempts to gain a hold on a living situation which is far beyond his grasp.
Along with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd and the fact she shot this on 35mm film, Coppola gives “The Beguiled” a smoky and beautiful look few other filmmakers could have pulled off. The ladies in their costumes look those women from Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock” to where the attention to detail meshes perfectly with a dreamlike quality. The soundtrack is mostly insects and birds making noises in the humid wilderness, but it is eventually punctuated by the subtle but powerful hum of the music by Phoenix which more than hints at the tension, sexual or otherwise, which is bubbling just below the surface.
There should be no doubt by now that Sofia Coppola is a born director, and I am not just saying this because her father gave us “The Godfather” trilogy (and yes, I like the third one). She has a signature style all her own, and she pays sharp attention to both the visuals and her cast with equal measure. Taking this into account, it should be no surprise she picked up the Best Director Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
In a summer which seems beleaguered by franchise fatigue, “The Beguiled” is a nice and unnerving surprise as the suspense builds to where characters, who at once seemed a peaceful bunch, seize on their animalistic nature for the sake of survival.
* * * * out of * * * *
NOTE: “The Beguiled” has been the subject of controversy recently as Coppola decided to exclude the character of Hallie, a black slave, who was featured in the 1971 movie. As a result, she has been accused of whitewashing the story and of downplaying the role slaves had in the Civil War. Coppola has explained she did not want to present slavery in a lighthearted way and was concerned she would not be able to give the subject the attention it deserved. This seems like a sane response as it shows her sensitivity to the issue of slavery, and it would be hard to see how she could balance that out with the story of the women in a successful way here. I don’t think she is whitewashing this story in the slightest. Besides, with all the unrest in the world of American politics right now, Coppola is the last person we should be accusing of whitewashing anything.