Director: Sofia Coppola
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst
The arrival of a new Sofia Coppola film is always cause for excitement. With the triptych of The Virgin Suicides, Lost In Translation and (the poorly received but enduring) Marie Antoinette she confirmed herself a major talent in American filmmaking, tapping into a thoughtful feminine ennui with her films about isolated souls and the acknowledged gaze of outsiders. Yet her films are not defined or boxed in as feminine, not that such a thing would be of detriment to her work anyway, but there’s a coolness to her eye; an inscrutable detachment that makes for quite an involving mixture. Her subsequent films – Somewhere and The Bling Ring – were lesser works (especially the latter), but they still retained that sense of artistry. She is a bold, distinctive auteur, and whether we approve of filmmakers placing such a stamp on their work or not, the results remain fascinating.
The Beguiled, a remake of the 1971 Don Siegel picture itself based on a novel by Thomas Culinan, is her third period piece, taking us back to Virginia in 1864. It’s three years into the Civil War and wounded Yankie mercenary John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is discovered lying lame in the forest by a young girl named Amy (Oona Laurence). Amy shows the Corporal charity and takes him bank to the country estate where she resides, the sounds of nearby combat booming all around them. The house is a girl’s school run by the upright Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman). Only a few children remain there, suspended in limbo by the ongoing war.
His wounds severe, Miss Martha judges that turning McBurney over would certainly cause his death; it just wouldn’t be right. So instead she provides temporary shelter for the man, stitching his leg, allowing him to convalesce while she decides what to do with him.
The stage is set for a hothouse of rivalry and unwound sexuality as McBurney’s smouldering masculine presence changes the dynamic of the house. The eldest of the children, Alicia (Elle Fanning), is precocious and daring around the man, rather reminiscent, in fact, of Dunst’s character Lux in The Virgin Suicides. Dunst herself plays the other remaining school teacher Edwina. Her third starring role for Coppola, it’s a work of stark contrast. Edwina is buttoned up, stern; a closed person. McBurney, however, sees another side to her – or at least claims to – and in personalising their relationship unlocks buried desires in the teacher.
Principally it is Miss Martha, Alicia and Edwina who circle as candidates for McBurney’s affections, but to limit the conversation would be a slight on the younger cast members. The remaining children Amy, Jane, Marie and Emily all make shows of themselves for the Corporal; they are more innocent and less overtly sexual, but Coppola documents the rituals by which they toy with burgeoning instincts to gain attention. Still, the dramatic focus is squarely on the women more reasonably in a position to gain McBurney’s favour.
In no case is it as clear-cut as the woman simply fawning over the man, though Coppola derives great pleasure from objectifying Farrell, reflecting the desirous gazes of her characters. Miss Martha is torn, Edwina reluctant and Alicia bold but nervous. McBurney himself is no innocent in this either – far from it – he’s well aware of the imbalance created by his presence and toys with it accordingly in order to extend his stay as long as possible, and also to amuse himself. Yet his amusement will sharply diminish as the events he has ignited combust in ways outside of his expectations. Disaster lies in wait.
Coppola’s films have always looked impeccable, and The Beguiled is no different. Working with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd on 35mm film stock, she presents a reverently beautiful vision of the time and place. Shots of the exterior of the house or the woodlands find golden light piercing down through clouds of leaves, bringing to mind Malick circa Days Of Heaven, while the interiors are lit purely by candlelight bringing to mind Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. It makes these rooms feel desirous and intimate, as though the house itself were some great creature and the characters one and all have been devoured.
After the audio pop collage of The Bling Ring, the quietude of The Beguiled finds Coppola taking up position as a silent observer once more. There is barely any music in the film, save for piano pieces played by the children or the odd (and entirely sumptuous) drone piece provided by French band Phoenix. The post-punk smashes that divided audiences on the Marie Antoinette soundtrack are nowhere in evidence here, making The Beguiled a more traditionally framed period piece. But the quietude doesn’t just serve fidelity to the time period; it compliments the escalating tension in the house. With so little to do, the negative spaces between the characters announce themselves, obsession with the new is almost inevitable. This sexual listlessness and this feeling of women frustratingly trapped by circumstance recalls the same evocations found in The Virgin Suicides.
Indeed, Coppola works us so well that when events escalate, The Beguiled briefly takes on the tone of a horror picture. It isn’t one – though blood will out – but she plays with sexual tension and danger in the same way that a horror master like John Carpenter, for instance, will play with an encroaching threat of violence. Coppola puts us on edge. Indeed one wonders what she might accomplish if she decided to make a horror film. The thought intrigues.
Where The Beguiled lands in her filmography it’s too soon to tell. The point is moot. As a piece it’s both in-keeping with her existing body of work and shows signs of evolution. After the wobble of The Bling Ring it’s a welcome return to form, and a hot balmy tonic to the clutter of blockbuster bombast filling most cinema screens this summer. Coppola scooped the Best Director prize at Cannes this year for her efforts here. I see no reason to object.