Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola
Based on the 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan
If you’re looking for a Hollywood movie to see, Sofia Coppola’s new film The Beguiled is not that. And if you’re interested in comparing her remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 movie starring Clint Eastwood, search other reviews.
Quite a lot spellbinds in Coppola’s Beguiled, the word itself having multiple meanings for the film. Like Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion about Emily Dickinson, Coppola’s work studies human character and psychology, employing a textured, historic setting, full of detail—a female world, cloistered and gated. Although the time is the third year of the Civil War and the location a plantation house built with the traditional front columns of the ruling class, the war is not the story. Instead, it provides a framework for why the finishing school that now occupies the mansion has only five girls remaining. Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), daughter of the former plantation owner, runs Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, with the help of an assistant, Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). Each of the five girls still at the school has a character role in the film, most notably Miss Alicia (Elle Fanning), a sexually hot teenager with a contemptuous personality, and Miss Amy (Oona Laurence), an eleven-year-old scholarly type with long, straight braids. All of the other women, except for their leader Miss Martha, wear elaborately braided hair and dress impeccably, their exquisite gowns sewed, laundered, and pressed at one time by slaves, who have since fled the Virginia homestead. Dress, manners, comportment are one of the “character studies” in the film—upper-class Southern women during the slave era. They curtsy when they greet someone, they speak with cultured articulation, and they learn the skills for their future as privileged women and wives: quiet handiwork, a smattering of French, music, and elegant dining-room etiquette. We see how they’re raised toward a perfection in femininity, like goddesses; their ladylike achievement is already established in childhood, but it also confines them, stifles them.
The next study, and related to the girls’ polite veneer, is their natural sexual drive for a man. And when a handsome man arrives to their cloistered world, all of them—from Martha with her aging face to the youngest girl—seek approbation from the lone man under their roof, Union soldier, Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell), an Irish mercenary. He is the enemy, but being good Samaritans the women must treat his badly wounded leg and let him convalesce before turning him over to the Confederates. We see by their magnetism to him that they also make excuses for keeping him longer. Their innate female biology drives them to dress up for him, flirt, charm, and allure him. The three eldest vie to sleep with him.
The next study Coppola offers us is Cpl. McBurney and how from the start he warmly personalizes each interaction with the women so that they won’t turn him over to the Confederates. He’s a talented manipulator with his gentle, solicitous Irish brogue, but wouldn’t his behavior be the same for any of us caught inside an enemy camp? This enemy camp happens to be all-female with femininity at its most cultivated state, so his wiles work in that direction. And he easily succeeds because other forces are helping him, namely the women’s natural pursuit of a desirable man. The tingling of this male-female dynamic permeates each scene like erotic vapors. Here the title looms most, for the word beguile has several meanings: to charm, enchant, sometimes in a deceptive way, to seduce, to trick, and, in older usage, to help pass the time pleasantly. Beyond these meanings in the film, the movie’s otherworldly, strangely ghostly aura—the eerie forest of Hansel and Gretel—beguiles the audience. Credit for this atmosphere goes to Coppola’s sense of texture and Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography.
The strongest character in the movie is Miss Edwina, whose sad, detached face and resignation to her female lot convey a real person, whereas the other women in the story play their roles. Cpl. McBurney, though also a role, has a real moment when he loses his wounded leg. His violent reaction, his anguish and thrashing madness at the women’s treachery, show us a true reaction to a horrific occurrence. Like the women imprisoned by their chauvinistic society, McBurney is agonizingly trapped in his ruined life.
A brilliant twist occurs at the end of the second act and transforms the quiet sobriety and simmering sexuality of the movie into a gruesome realm, already set-up by the story’s ethereal, fairy-book atmosphere. Horror seamlessly creeps in, and the change in the girls’ personalities from angels to witches is a wonderful stroke. Our gracious Southern hostesses seated around the formal dining table in their beautifully crafted dresses and discreet jewelry, behave demurely as they serve Cpl. McBurney poisonous mushrooms. Miss Martha’s gleaming eye and gloating smile as she meets her enemy’s eye when his choking death throes begin, couldn’t be more sinister. Her formerly aging, pretty face is now pinched and wicked, like Dracula, the mouth suggesting a drip of blood.
We leave the theater full of thoughts, always the sign of a good movie. The study of women’s nature when their sexuality kindles raises questions: What if McBurney had been a Confederate soldier instead of a Yankee? Would the women have revenged so cruelly his deceptions with them? Was amputation really necessary or the result of Miss Martha’s wounded vanity? The creepy mood of the last act suggests the latter; attraction had turned to enmity, with shocking consequences. More questions arise: What happens when several women vie for the same man? Disaster, evil. Why was Cpl. McBurney so dumb as to sneak into one of the women’s rooms wearing shoes and tapping his cane, so that everyone else in the house could hear his movements, bringing on the crisis? How ironic that this Irishman made his way to the New World for a better life and because of dire need joined the Union Army only to have his life destroyed. And finally, what genre is this movie—highbrow horror along the lines of Robert Eggers’s The Witch, with its subtitle A New England Folktale? Whatever its classification, an artist has made it and with a beguiling aesthetic.