Writer-director Sofia Coppola, recently awarded Best Director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (making her the second woman and first American in its history to receive such a distinction,) returns with a typically ethereal, intricate, and sexually-charged Civil War drama. Set in the war-torn Confederate State of Virginia, 1864, The Beguiled (adapted from Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel of the same name,) depicts a world entrenched in its traditions.
The Civil War rages on, shaking the very foundations of the (hardly) United States, and in a women’s seminary, far removed from the realities of the changing world, seven women of varying ages reside. Governed by the matriarchal Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman,) they lead lives adhered to restraint and tradition, their education failing to alleviate idle boredom.
Whilst out picking mushrooms for supper, one of the younger students, Amy (Oona Lawrence,) stumbles upon the wounded Unionist soldier and Irish immigrant, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell.) Sporting a serious leg injury, he is in dire need of treatment.
Coppola’s latest is as much a meditation on change as it is a piece about female sexuality and gender politics during the Civil War era, but its sparse score and haunting, gothic visuals leave it feeling like an intense, feverish dream. The Corporal makes for unwelcome change. He is an undeniable physical reminder of an ongoing war otherwise only seen and heard by the women of the seminary in fleeting glimpses; not to mention, he is the enemy – a man who stands not only for the inevitable ruination of the Confederacy, but the undoing of the intrinsic structure of each woman’s life as well.
Coppola has crafted an incredibly engaging narrative. The characters may not be the most fleshed out, with only a couple of lines each to illuminate what are relatively non-existent backstories, but they manage to keep the film focused and the plot lean. In the film’s more restrained first half, there is genuine mystery and intrigue surrounding the reality of each character’s relationship with the injured yet notably handsome Corporal – an alien object of desire – and every scene feels loaded with Coppola’s trademark nuances.
The Beguiled is beautifully lensed and even more beautifully composed, riding the hazy line between fugue-like and unmistakably tangible. As the eldest (and sultriest) student, Alisha (Elle Fanning,) sits against a gorgeous willow tree brooding over her newly realised sexuality, you’re left filled with Coppola’s distinct brand of wistful melancholia. But languor and ennui, as lavish as they may appear, are a way of life. The arrival of the Corporal sparks such inner turmoil in the seminary’s occupants because he represents the most terrifying concept of all: the inevitability of change.
The reserved and forlorn Miss Edwina Morrow (Coppola regular Kirsten Dunst) finds little meaning in her life as a teacher at the seminary, and while McBurney may spell sexual liberation for the young and excitable Alisha, in his words lie the promise of something much more valuable to Edwina: he can offer an escape to freedom; freedom from a life restricted, and freedom from the impending collapse of traditional Southern life the end of the war would undoubtedly bring. As she sits outside, working on a dress, we hear the ominous thunder of cannon-fire in the distance. The horizon blackens with smoke to remind her, as much as she may not want to accept it, that change is coming.
Change that is out of her control.
But one reminder is all we’re given. Coppola adopts a rather aptly restricted approach to film-making, and it’s in her deft skill as a director that The Beguiled shines brightest. The restriction of the source material allows The Beguiled to be a more focused and driven film. With a surprisingly short 94-minute runtime (a runtime Coppola is no stranger to, of course,) it’s a satisfying experience. Little time is ever wasted. Masterfully, Coppola is both as forthcoming and as reserved as is necessary, successfully conveying exactly what needs to be said in as many or as few words as possible. And as the final shot lingers for perhaps a second too long and the ever-welcome words “directed by Sofia Coppola” fade in, you’re left firmly reminded that Coppola is as proudly adept as ever before. The Beguiled is nothing short of a testament to her inscrutable style as a director working today.
It would be interesting, no doubt, to have seen the director step a little outside of her comfort zone, but her strangely melancholic yet enticing aesthetic is something to behold when executed so well. The film is not without its flaws, naturally, but by no means does it suffer from poorly realised visuals and themes.
In the second half, the narrative is at its strongest. Coppola indulges in a playful disregard for the well-being of her characters, resulting in a bizarre, wonderful mix of black comedy and genuinely uncomfortable tension. She manages to tap in to the psyche of not only her characters, but the audience too. Her latest may not be her best, but it is quintessentially hers. It is a film with a modern outlook presented in a timeless fashion. Its focus is clear and its message intricately rich, presented with a dreamlike authenticity. Crucially, it works as an examination of sexuality as profoundly as it does as a war film.
The realities and horrors of war are no strangers to the silver screen, but here, Coppola gives voice to the women left behind who are rarely given much consideration. Underpinning her thesis on the differences between men and women is an unconventional exploration of the mutual suffering of those fighting and those at home – their fears, their hopes, and their crushed ambitions take centre-stage. Coppola can safely consider her most recent outing a triumphant return to form. It may draw its allusions to her earlier works, and although it will never be free from the endless comparisons to Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation of the same name, it proudly stands as a new inductee into the feminist canon, and into one of the finer filmographies of this century so far.
by Sebastian Mann
The Beguiled will be showing at the Gulbenkian from this Friday 11th – Tuesday 15th August 2017