A Review of Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled
"We can show him some real Southern hospitality."
- A line spoken by Alicia, played by Elle Fanning.
Sofia Coppola and I have come full circle. We started with The Virgin Suicides back in the year 2000. I was in love. With her. With her star, Kirsten Dunst. With her film. With its taste in music. With its visual perfection playing like re-creations of the day-dreamt longings of my teenage years.
Now, we're all back together once more (minus the pop songs, which wouldn't go here) in a re-imagining of The Beguiled, a novel first adapted for the screen in 1971 by director Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood in what I understand to be a much dirtier, angrier affair. I can't speak to that having not yet seen it myself, but I see what attracted her to this story. It must have been the same sort of thing that drew her to The Virgin Suicides and the story of the misunderstood young Queen of France, Marie-Antionette, though here her trapped female protagonists take what they want and keep what's theirs.
In the midst of the Civil War, 1864 Virginia, a Yankee soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), is found wounded, dying in the woods by a young girl, the kind-hearted Amy (Oona Laurence), out hunting mushrooms to bring back for what's left of the young ladies of the Farnsworth School. Though he's an enemy soldier, Amy decides the Christian thing is to bring him back with her as well. At the school, a gothic Southern mansion, gated and overgrown, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) leads her young charges, including the flirtatious Alicia (Elle Fanning) and the proper Jane (Angourie Rice), alongside Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), who wearily continues to teach the younger girls French verb conjugations and penmanship as the war is fought mere miles away. Girls left behind to present themselves to no one in a time that demands only that.
Like all of Coppola's films, The Beguiled is deliberately paced, especially early on. We are invited to watch the slow developments in the interactions of each of these women and their male captive, the ambiguously charming and undeniably handsome McBurney, each stirred by his presence in her own way. Coppola, with the French cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, defies you to look away for a second, however, as each frame is as lovingly crafted as the one before, all under a constant haze, the humid Southern air itself another container which holds these women.
Throughout her career, Sofia Coppola has been fascinated by stories of women trapped by circumstances outside of their control with little hope for escape. She has done this three times now with the actress Kirsten Dunst, my first real celebrity crush (on someone my own age) as a teenager. I have grown up with her as an actress as I have grown up with Coppola as a director. They clearly share a connection, and it is no better evidenced here, as the two of them collide with Coppola's latest muse, Elle Fanning, who together provide the dramatic backbone of The Beguiled.
And that may be the main criticism I have of this film. That the twisted event that throws Dunst's longing Edwina and Fanning's bored Alicia viciously at each other isn't explored further. Alas, that might be another movie altogether but one I sort of wanted to see. Like with all of Coppola's films, a re-watch will be rewarding.
As it is, The Beguiled is everything you expect from a Sofia Coppola film from its slow pacing, which is off-putting to some, to its imagery, which can be appreciated by all, to its characterizations, the boredom of the privileged awakened by the intrusion of an alluring stranger. But this time it is packaged in a thrilling, sometimes even bloody, Southern gothic nightmare that you can't shake even if you try.
dir. Sofia Coppola, 2017