Alison Blankenhaus on Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’ (2017)
Right from the beginning of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Thomas Cullinan, a haunting atmosphere causes the audience members to ponder over what they see.
Set in Virginia during the American Civil War towards the end of the 19th Century, the film opens by tracking a young girl, Amy (Oona Laurence), looking for mushrooms amongst an idyllic valley of ancient trees. This fairy-tale-like scenery is accompanied by the sounds of nature, tweaking birds and her unalloyed voice singing a children’s song. However, this picture of tranquillity is undermined by a lingering and minimalistic synthesiser soundtrack, which asks the audience to view this image with caution. Amy’s serene hunt for mushrooms is suddenly interrupted when she finds the wounded Union Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), whom she offers help. The moment in which Amy drags the muddy bundle of a soldier through the gates of the white and pristine old mansion marks the turning point in the lives of the other girls and women living in the isolated house: Amy brought a wild stranger, a man, a mystery from the outside world into the sheltered meticulously ordered feminine household. From then onwards McBurney’s adoring charm and chivalry spark rivalries and intrigues amongst the women endangering the hierarchies of their regulated lives.
The plot unravels entirely within the sterile and secluded mansion, which is made to look claustrophobic due to the 16:9 aspect ratio that Coppola and her cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd have employed. The mystery of the outside world is embodied in the form of the solider, who sparks fascination in every female character and has an effect on the ritualistic and cyclical life of the mansion. The static framing and long shots, pastel colours and soft-lighting, which characterises the regulated life of the women, are increasingly replaced by darker scenes dominated by tactile close-ups of hidden touches and secret exchanges of glances with McBurney. Miss Martha’ mantra, “If we learn our lessons early, we can expect a calm and happy life” increasingly crumbles with the arrival of the corporeal who threatens to awaken female sexual desire buried beneath the embellishments and lace. However, being wounded and unable to move, McBurney finds himself at the mercy of these women and begins a gamble with his life when encouraging these hidden desires.
Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) is the head of the household and in charge of the keys, the food and, most importantly, the guns. In contrast to the weakened and handicapped soldier, Miss Martha is the most capable character of the ensemble and flourishes through the strong performance of Kidman, who, as Coppola told us in a post-screening Q&A, is “able to convey so much with an eyebrow.” In addition to the outstanding performances of Nicole Kidman and of Oona Laurence as the brave and determined Amy, the film thrives due to its strong cast. Advancing from her performance in The Neon Demon (2016), Elle Fanning anew portrays an adolescent girl that does not accord to a conservative lifestyle, ready to show their guest “some real southern hospitality.”
Kirsten Dunst skilfully embodies the shy and gullible teacher Edwina who desires to escape the confinements of rural life and seek adventure in the city with her newfound love, McBurney. Dunst’s intricate performance as this helpless, trapped and desperate woman is so convincing that the audience longs to shake her body in order to wake her up and see McBurney for whom he is. Farrell’s performance as McBurney deviates from Don Siegel’s films interpretation as a plain bad-guy, as he constantly creates doubt in the sincerity of his actions. After all, he is handicapped and depends on the women’s hospitality and gratuity, which is gradually transformed into desire and jealousy.
Coppola’s interpretation of The Beguiled excels due to its ambiguity, allowing an interpretation of the characters reaching from endearing femmes to “vengeful bitches.” The female perspective introduces uncertainty with regard to the dubious McBurney character and creates a mysterious tension between each individual. However, Coppola manages to intercept the dark and thrilling plot with moments of humour (especially during the dinner sequences) amid social awkwardness.
The Beguiled is an artful and accomplished melodramatic thriller that compellingly explores, as Coppola describes it, the “Mystery and power-struggle between men and women.” This is, quite simply, a stunning piece of art featuring an exceptional female cast. It is a testimony of Coppola’s talent and ability to explore contemporary issues in a costume-drama setting that is subtle, cautious and mysterious. Rather than a black-and-white tale of good and bad, this story humanises each character and haunts the audience with the question of who indeed the beguiled is. After all, “There is nothing more frightening than a startled woman with a gun.”
The Beguiled is showing in cinemas now.