Film Review: The Beguiled 2017
Sofia Copolla offers a provocative, striking and poignantly funny feminist adaption of the gothic thriller The Beguiled.
Sofia Coppola’s latest indie endeavor is a stylishly feminist take on Thomas Cullinan’s gothic novel, The Beguiled, where wounded enemy soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is taken in by Farnsworth Seminary, a girl’s boarding school in Civil War era in Virginia. This unexpected arrival triggers a time bomb in this house of women, causing a hyperbole of chaos. Coppola’s fresh and provocative take on the gothic thriller brings the simple plot to new depths with her dark and witty adaptation of this tale of seduction, sexual awakening, power and survival. Bringing a powerhouse of female performances from Nicole Kidman (Martha), Kirsten Dunst (Edwina), Elle Fanning (Alicia) and in general, the chiefly all-female cast – bar Farrell and a quick visit from two soldiers - Coppola’s sensual version plays with the isolation, confinement of the four walls of the house to illuminate power clashes, the fluidity of human relationships, and the innate power and beauty of women.
The film opens with the first of many aesthetically beautiful, yet haunting shots of sunlight dappling through the trees in the swampy woods of Virginia, the distant shrill of cannon fires underscored by the silence of the woods. Coppola’s use of natural light and setting – limp willows framing low stills of the house and slow camera pans - adds a soft, feminine nature to the film’s tone which is so typical of Coppolla’s film reel of arty, photograph-like cinematography. It also functions as one of the only reminders of time, alongside candle-lit dinners, throughout: either dusk or dawn ethereally push through trees and frame the Southern plantation house, so that days draw into nights and vice versa, creating a sense of detachment from the world, or the “norm,” as well as something inescapably imminent and discordant with the adorned Southern belles that inhabit the house.
The film is primarily set inside the gates of this boarding house: no one seems to leave. There is essentially an absence of action, but more notably the sense of waiting. Perhaps an allusion to the futility of the civil war and tirelessly holding onto colonial values (as well as to women’s status in general): these women are in limbo. Educated to be Southern women for a patriarchal world, but with no men to perform to, the film plays on latent desires and the conflict between sexuality and repression; tradition and freedom.
Coppolla’s desire to do the “same story but from the female characters’ point of view” is established from the very beginning, and the opening title which explicitly fills the whole screen with bright pink text is a strong and poised feminist directorial decision that this film will take no prisoners.
When the young Farnsworth girl, Amy, stumbles across the handsome wounded soldier whilst out picking mushrooms, it seems almost too good to be true for the Irish-Yankee Corporal: Amy’s character is notably the most in tune with nature and whom is later described by Martha as offering refuge out of the “goodness of her heart.” Farrell’s entrance to this pastel pageantry causes more than a stir in the tedious lives of the seven flowering ladies, whom, Copolla makes clear have not been in such close contact with the male species for quite some time.
This cryptic male presence is an unwelcome relief for the females, painted successfully by the fluttering attentiveness of the women as they flock around his body, alarmed at first but eventually receive the all-clear from head teacher Miss Martha (Kidman) that they should take him in as it’s the “good Christian thing to do” – a haunting notion and a subtle reminder of the Antebellum Southern mentality guiding Miss Martha, and consequently, the whole house into a state of stagnant perplexity. Scared of being caught harbouring the “enemy,” Martha’s hasty decision to lock McBurney in the downstairs music room where his leg wound can be tended to until his recovery, is quickly followed by a steamy bed-bath. Erotic, lingering shots of Martha caressing Farrell’s practically naked body is expressed with such a pleasurable agony from Kidman, as well as revealing a quality absent in most Hollywood films. We see the male body through the female gaze. Kidman showcases her acting range with an astute performance of a woman possessed by clashing emotions and sexual pleasures: the sense of power achieved through this intimate moment where she has her victim/visitor all to herself, and the power over him she gets as he lay unconscious is haunting and will leave you wondering. The shots of her looking down on his passive body, and then looking up to her from his subordinate position of surrender is a trope used throughout the film, as each female tends to their patient from an unusual position of power.
The power struggle between alpha female and male are ever present when Miss Martha warns McBurney: “you're our most unwelcome visitor, and we do not propose to entertain you.” No, in fact, it is she is fully entertained by his silent presence so that his conscious, recovering self is a threat to her position. His response that he is “easily amused” aids to the dark humour of Copolla’s screenplay, and the beguiling charm of Farrell’s character.
This “heightened situation” as Coppolla labels it, exacerbates the sexual tension and absence felt by the three elder women, but especially for Fanning’s character, the temptress Alicia, a blossoming and bored teen, who views the pretty soldier as an object of curiosity and a means for sexual awakening and satisfaction. Her desire to pounce on Farrell is communicated via playground flirtations, inviting doe eyes and longing glances, desperate to exercise her “southern hospitality,” Fanning executes the part effortlessly.
On the other scale of lusting women is Dunst’s noteworthy portrayal of the naïve and tormented Edwina, whose biggest desire is to be “taken far away from here” – emphasis on being taken, but no motivation for action. Her all too easy seduction from McBurney when he calls her the “most beautiful woman he has seen” has “such an affect” on her, that her will to run away with the soldier whom she also sees as her ticket out of her prison as well as his, forces her to act out a crime of passion. When Edwina catches McBurney and Alicia in bed together, the betrayal causes such rage and jealousy that she pushes him down the stairs, sparking a series of violent and vengeful consequences for the almost fully recovered soldier.
Miss Martha’s feelings of betrayal as McBurney has seduced both Edwina and Alicia, lead her to exercise her own ruthless power as the matriarch of this plantation house. Just as she sewed up his gory leg at the start, she takes matters into her own hands when said leg is wounded even more severely from the fall. Briskly deciding on the spot in a macabrely bloodied white nighty made more vivid by candlelight that his leg can’t be saved, she requests for the saw, and hilariously, the anatomy book. Copolla’s decision to cast Farrell as the lothario turned wild man is immaculate. Farrell brings a femininity to the role which complements the cast, as well as an intriguing performance; The Beguiled stages a flawless cast. Copolla’s sharp script creates space for playful experimentation, and for audiences to feel and ponder on the layered mysteries of experience through a captivating female lens.
This provocative take on Cullinan’s thriller plays on the beguiling charm of Southern pageantry life, the aesthetics of femininity, social power struggles, the spectrum of human consciousness, and the violent, bloody realities of Antebellum, patriarchal America. Coppolla delicately reveals the savagery of true “Southern hospitality” that bubbles and stews, until the final dinner when the girls collectively decide to feed the fuming McBurney poisonous mushrooms. No enemy soldier will disrupt the decorum and structure of this beautifully adorned plantation house built on slavery and patriarchy.
The Beguiled will seduce you with its striking cinematography and equally persuasive and appealing characters. Just as the camera lingers on close-ups and emotions, this film of beauty and violence will linger in your mind for a long time afterwards. The film beguiles its audience, tempting us to pleasurably shift and question motives, and perhaps even quote Miss Martha’s sardonic remark that “it seems the enemy is not what we believed.”
In cinemas now.
Image Credit: Rolling Stone, The Playlist, IMDB