The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017)
With a feature-filmmaking career that began in 1999, with The Virgin Suicides, and has continued since then with Lost in Translation (2003), Marie Antoinette (2006), Somewhere (2010), The Bling Ring (2013) and now The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola – the youngest child, and only daughter, of filmmakers Francis Ford and Eleanor Coppola – has proved herself adept at a certain kind of dreamy exploration of female awakening, be it of the sexual or self-actualized variety, often in reaction to the male-dominated world. Her films are peopled by women – usually young – struggling with issues of personal agency and identity. Men play important parts in these stories, as well, but are often there as dramatic obstacles or opportunities in the path towards whatever destiny awaits. And though Coppola has come under some criticism over her lack of racial diversity in her films – and in The Beguiled, in particular – hers is one of many needed feminine voices in the cinematic patriarchy, articulating her characters’ often inchoate longing for something just beyond their as-yet-unarticulated understanding. And though I may not entirely agree with the Cannes Film Festival jury’s decision to award her its 2017 Best Director Prize (making her only the second woman ever to win) – as I find her latest work narratively remote, if also fascinating – I nevertheless concur that Coppola is in full control of her visual aesthetic and the performances of her actors. Based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Thomas Cullinan (which was previously adapted for the screen in 1971), it’s a glorious, wild affair, much like the tendrils of Spanish moss that fill many of the exterior compositions.
The year is 1864 – “3 years into the Civil War,” as a title card informs us – and we are in Virginia, at the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Girls. Only five students remain, with but one teacher plus the headmistress as the two adult chaperones. The slaves, too, have long since fled, leaving the women especially alone (simultaneously removing racial tension from the story and opening Coppola up to charges of insensitivity), seemingly helpless. When one of the youngest girls, Amy (Oona Laurence, Lamb), comes across a wounded Union soldier in the woods – played by Colin Farrell (The Lobster) – she is at first afraid. Very quickly, however, he charms her with his gentle manner, and she agrees to help him hobble to the school. There, he collapses, and though the women consider handing him over, as a prisoner, to the nearby Confederate army, they agree to first heal him. Or rather, their formidable leader Miss Martha – played by the ever-powerful Nicole Kidman (Lion) – decides on the course of action, and undertakes the surgical repair of the soldier’s leg, herself. Seemingly capable of everything, she nevertheless swoons a bit as she cleans his body, lingering a little here and there.
And so the movie goes, with each character – even the small ones – confronting an unexpected rush of emotion and desire brought on by the mere presence of a captive male in their midst. Miss Edwina, the teacher – played by a restrained Kirsten Dunst (so fine in Season 2 of Fargo) – is more distraught than most, though the oldest of the girls, Alicia (Elle Fanning, The Neon Demon), is equally intrigued. The soldier, whose name, we learn, is Corporal John McBurney, flirts with all, indiscriminately, though his reasons, other than hoping that they not give him up to the Confederates, are unclear. Is he simply a man taking advantage of women, as is the wont and cultural prerogative of all men? Does he actually like any of them? Is he tired of war and looking for a refuge? It is to Coppola’s credit as writer and director that she successfully keeps us guessing, even after the film is done, about his motivations. The women, too, emerge as individually robust characters, each with her own distinct personality, who merge, collectively, into a daunting foe for Corporal McBurney once things turn ugly.
Which they do. Much has already been written about this film’s place in the Southern Gothic genre. Everyone is an hysterical mess, ravaged by loneliness, war and hormones. Add a drop of Y chromosome, and hysteria approaches madness. Coppola and her cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (The Grandmaster) often bathe the proceedings in gorgeous, calming natural light, as if in contrast to the roiling emotions within. They also have a penchant for studied compositions, frequently framing the women in tableaux vivants – and otherwise offering up still lifes of various object and food, throughout, as well – as if to empathize that all that follows is part of a carefully constructed play within the movie, with each person playing a preordained part. It’s beautiful to behold, if also stifling, which is its point, I assume, but also dramatically inert, at times. I loved much of what I was watching, but felt simultaneously detached. This estrangement from the story left me laughing when things turned outrageously gory, rather than horrified. Was that the right reaction? I’m not sure. But it’s the feeling of distance that ultimately left me less enthusiastic, by the end, than I thought I would be, given my positive reaction at the start. All the while, I remain in admiration of Coppola’s technique. Strong women confronting a man’s world? Nothing wrong with that.