Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Beguiled

Posted By on Thu, Jul 6, 2017 at 5:15 PM

Sofia Coppola approaches The Beguiled like an scientist preparing an experiment. The source material—a novel that was already adapted into a 1971 film with Clint Eastwood and Dirty Harry director Don Siegel—provided her with an isolated community of women to work with. It’s the waning days of the Civil War, and Miss Farnsworth’s School for Young Ladies holds on by a thread in rural Virginia. Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) is left with only a few charges, girls and young women with dead parents and nowhere else to go. The atmosphere is made ominous by the low rumble of dueling artillery over the horizon, and teacher Edwina Morrow (Kristen Dunst) keeps a spyglass lookout for approaching soldiers.

click to enlarge Nicole Kidman in The Beguiled
  • Nicole Kidman in The Beguiled

One day, while foraging for mushrooms, Amy (Oona Laurence) finds instead a wounded Union soldier. Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) caught a leg full of shrapnel before fleeing the battle and finding a tree to die against. Emily helps the Corporal back to the school, where he collapses. Miss Farnsworth decides the Christian thing to do is to show mercy, so they take the soldier into the mansion’s music room to treat his wounds. Jane (Angourie Rice) says he’s a obviously a rapist in waiting and wants to hand him over to the Confederate army, but Alicia (Elle Fanning) thinks he should be allowed to stay. Miss Farnsworth leads the group in a prayer for the Corporal’s “return to health, and early departure.”

But it’s too late. The Corporal lands in the midst of the women like a sex grenade, and the first to catch the shrapnel is Miss Farnsworth herself. The prim and proper woman who makes a living instilling values in young ladies finds herself overcome with lust while washing the naked, unconscious soldier. She recognizes the danger and makes the music room off limits to the girls, which quickly becomes the most-violated rule in the crumbling school.
click to enlarge Colin Farrell puts the moves on Elle Fanning.
  • Colin Farrell puts the moves on Elle Fanning.
Like in The Virgin Suicides and The Bling Ring, Coppola's subject is a group of women gone feral. As each of her characters sneak into the Corporals’ room for a little conversation and illicit hand-holding, their relationship to the group changes. Each of these scenes also explores how women of different ages relate to men. Miss Farnsworth offers brandy and conversation, while 18-year-old Alicia wordlessly kisses his sleeping lips. Even the youngest girls understand they’re supposed to dress up for the man, but they don’t really know why. Eventually, bodices are (literally) ripped, and jealousy and anger spiral out of control.

In some ways, the escalating tension and subtly shifting allegiances in The Beguiled resembles the paranoid neo-horror of It Comes At Night. Coppola’s strongest points as a director serve her well. She has an incredible eye for composition, and her work here with French cinematographer Phillippe Le Sourd is beautiful and meticulous. Most impressive is the Kubrickian candlelight photography around the school’s tense dinner table.

click to enlarge beguiled_table_shot.jpg

Coppola is also top notch with actors, and she has a potent pairing with Kidman, nailing the pragmatism and repressed passion of the Southern spinster. Dunst deftly plays against type as the plain, desperate schoolteacher, and Oona Lawrence is outstanding as the budding tween naturalist whose compassion backfires.

Like a scientist, Coppola is controlling the variables of her experiment. A black slave character present in the original film is absent in this version. Taking race out of the equation keeps the focus on the female group dynamics and sexual selection pressures Coppola wants to pick apart, but setting the story in the Civil War makes the absence of racial tension obvious. Would we be less sympathetic to these ladies’ plight if we saw how they treated their slaves? Maybe. Or maybe, as with Marie Antoinette, Coppola wants to make beautiful images from the grand trappings of fading aristocracy without confronting the exploitation that created them. As it is, The Beguiled is a movie with no good guys or bad guys, just people responding to pressures in strange, but understandable, ways.

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