It is criminal how rarely a new film from a female director is seen as a major cinematic event - probably because of how criminally few female directors are taken as seriously as they should be. Sofia Coppola is one of the few, and even though her recent films have been something of a disappointment, her work still garners a degree of interest for her distinct artistic voice. For her latest film, ‘The Beguiled’, she casts her eye into the history of the American Civil War, with a deceptively simple Gothic fable that hides under the surface something rich and dark.
Based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan (previously adapted to film in 1971), the film focuses on an isolated girls’ school in Virginia during the Civil War. The headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) protect and educate the five girls remaining in the school, but their lives are thrown into a tailspin when an injured Yankee soldier, Colonel McBurney (Colin Farrell) seeks refuge in their school. Sheltering him at first while he recovers, the relationships between the seven women begin to crumble as his presence within their protected unit threatens to bring it crashing down with dangerous and violent results.
In her previous work, Coppola moved between austere minimalism (‘The Virgin Suicides’, ‘Lost in Translation’) and a kind of pop melodrama (‘Marie Antoinette’, ‘The Bling Ring’). With ‘The Beguiled’ though, she combines elements of both with an almost microscopic specificity into a gothic thriller of exceptional beauty, barbed wit and seething unrest. Her screenplay shifts the focus of the novel from McBurney to the women, offering a more fascinating and contemporary set of themes and questions to explore. His presence no longer simply sparks issues of sexual repression, but ignites more potent hopes and dreams in these women - hopes of escape, a connection to the outside world, companionship both familial and romantic - and when his presence suddenly becomes a threat to their stability, they have no choice but to defend themselves in order to survive. On the surface, ‘The Beguiled’ quietly revels in its melodrama, offering endless delicious moments of camp and razor-sharp one-liners, but all of this works to amplify the sudden jolts of palpable danger. The film feels like a myth, a complex allegorical riddle to unravel that refuses to play to the traditional concepts of victim and oppressor, guilty and innocent, right and wrong. Coppola tempts us to look at the microcosm of the school as a mirror of the macrocosm of the dynamic between men and women, the expectations of one for the other and what inevitably happens when those expectations conflict, specifically a matriarchy forced to defend itself from oppressive patriarchy. There is so much to unpack about ‘The Beguiled’, and even with the lushness, tension and melodrama that make it so tremendously entertaining, its tempting complexity and haunting intelligence is ultimately its greatest pleasure.
The film is also Coppola’s most impressive directorial feat to date. The singularity of her vision is more precise than ever, so that at a tight 93 minutes, not a moment of the film feels wasted. Her control of the rhythm, tone and tension is remarkable, often sublime, and without an ounce of the self-consciousness that has troubled her work in the past. Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography is breathtaking, probably the finest so far this year, and the careful composition of image and light he and Coppola craft are a consistent wonder to behold. The period setting pulses with life, and the characters are part of the landscape rather than simply sitting within it, the camera catching their myriad minute moments that speak volumes of the violence brewing underneath. There’s no question that ‘The Beguiled’ is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, but it is beauty for a purpose rather than an aesthetic end, an integral part of the fabric of the storytelling as well as a palpable evocation of the Civil War period. Anne Ross’ attention to detail in the production design is exquisite, more so in how it makes this world feel lived-in and alive. The school itself seems to have grown from the landscape itself, and the women from within it. As only a great director can, Coppola weaves it all together to create something that feels complete, immediate and alert, a film acutely aware of its audience and the experience it is offering them, revelling in their delight and even more so in their surprise.
The film feels like a myth, a complex allegorical riddle to unravel that refuses to play to the traditional concepts of victim and oppressor, guilty and innocent, right and wrong.
Perhaps the most tempting aspect of ‘The Beguiled’ though is its extraordinary ensemble, all of whom deliver tremendous performances. Kidman once again asserts her position as one of the finest actors in the world, somehow treading the careful line between the human and the ridiculous that Miss Martha walks on with sublime dexterity. Kirsten Dunst complements her beautifully with Edwina’s quiet desperation, a trapped beast begging for the chance to escape. The girls themselves, led by Elle Fanning, are each distinct and memorable, creating a believable sisterly unit. This is an extraordinary ensemble of women, all the more thrilling for their synchronicity with the woman directing them. Much to his benefit, Colin Farrell knows exactly how to place McBurney within this matriarchy, so that he is neither a romantic lead nor a villain but a catalyst for displacement, a role he executes with rigour and intelligence.
Where some films can to a certain degree be judged objectively, I don’t think ‘The Beguiled’ is one of them. Whether you fall under its spell or reject it depends entirely on your personal reading of it, either of which is valid. Personally, I found it to be a thrilling, intoxicating and deeply unsettling film, one whose full impact I’m still having to process and probably will for a long while yet. This is Sofia Coppola’s greatest work to date, a stunning piece of gothic melodrama that is easily one of the best films of the year so far. It’s little wonder that she won Best Director at Cannes, so extraordinary is her control, her vision and her audacity. ‘The Beguiled’ is a delicious film, and appropriately named - beguiling in its beauty, its menace and its quiet rage right down to its extraordinary and haunting final image.