Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, a remake of a 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood, was a bit of a darling at Cannes this year. Coppola took home Best Director at the festival, which was only the second time a woman won the award. The film itself is a peculiar kind of Civil War era drama charged with the flavor of an erotic thriller or mystery. There’s a deep sexuality to the unraveling of the plot, as a single wounded male character navigates a school of isolated and curious women. The result is a tight tale of empowerment and intrigue, presented in a quiet and classical aesthetic.
The plot of The Beguiled is simple and straightforward. A wounded Union soldier named John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is discovered in the Virginia woods by a young girl foraging for mushrooms. She brings him back to her girl’s school, where the headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) tends to his wounds with the help of another teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst). The younger girls range from the teenaged Alicia (Elle Fanning) to the very young Emily and Marie. McBurney recuperates here in the den of the enemy, always aware that the girls are showing interest in him, but ever fearful that they will turn him in to a Confederate envoy.
This is a strong cast of characters, and the acting is superb throughout. Kidman, Dunst and Farrell do most of the heavy lifting, especially once the romantic entanglements start twisting their way through the school. The younger Fanning sister once again shows off her incredible talent, conveying complexity through simple looks and gestures. Even the youngest cast members have their moments, and in fact seem to be some of the most observant and clever of the bunch. Altogether, this ensemble is simply a triumph, without any reservation.
Obviously, there’s a specific time to this film, as it is set during the height of the Civil War. But Coppola takes further advantage of this setting by allowing the historical surroundings to inform the mood of the story. There’s an isolation to the setting and the distinct feeling that self-sufficiency is a requirement of the women’s survival. At the same time, there’s also a sense that they are all trapped, as though they are all in a holding pattern waiting for the war to end and the world to start up again. The pacing reminds of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, forcing the audience into the a more patient mindset.
Coppola’s visual style assists in this mood. The film is classical, brooding, beautiful, and slow. There are precious few overt and active camera movements. And when Coppola does choose to move the camera, it is usually very languid and slight. This lends the film an old-fashioned and stoic kind of objectivity, as though we are visiting in on these people during a particularly turbulent time in their lives. It also has the effect of presenting the past and the actions of these characters without commentary or judgement.
Certainly, Coppola’s power is on full display here, as she generates strong performances from the actors and has a deft command of the cinematography. But, does this movie have anything to say thematically? Is it that such a stoic existence lends one towards titillation, even in the face of danger (or especially in the face of danger)? There’s the obvious surface reading of female empowerment as well, but it is slight and confused by the grander threads of the plot as it unfolds.
In the end, I don’t know if The Beguiled has a big idea about it. It feels more like a pretty Southern Civil War flick infused with the flavor of a tawdry sexual thriller. Still, in that context, Coppola’s film delivers on the visuals, set and style design, and the performances. The aesthetic is genuine and strong, suggesting that the director and the actors fulfilled a singular vision; there just doesn’t seem to be any kind of thematic power behind that vision.