In the war torn South three years into the Civil War, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) governs a school for young women that is devoid of men, slaves, and most of the young women students for that matter. Despite it all, she aims to not only survive but to guide these women so that they may learn to thrive in a stressful and uncertain world. Amy (Oona Laurence), the young explorer, is gathering mushrooms when she stumbles onto the injured Yankee Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell). He requests aid and the small framed Amy somehow manages to bring this soldier into their claustrophobic and fragile ecosystem. The six young women under Martha, all of varying ages and maturity levels, are groomed to be proper ladies for a man. McBurney’s sudden introduction is refreshingly destabilizing but dangerous as Martha is quick to determine. Her instincts tell her to turn him over where he will be a prisoner and most likely die anyway.
Sofia Coppola focuses on the points of view of the women, as she is apt to do, and displays them on lush 35mm film stock in elegant compositions. There is no modern pop soundtrack this time around and it allows her to be nuanced and precise with the tone and pacing of the characters she understands so well. Coppola’s main subjects always feel cut off from the rest of the world or at least are constantly doubting the life path they are currently on. Her collaboration with DP Philippe Le Sourd produced these sensuous human vignettes amidst a very hot oppressive South, methodically illustrating the inner turmoil of the women.
Corporal McBurney’s arc begins at the opposite end. He finds himself convalescing in a type of heaven. Quick to pick up on the situation, the Corporal becomes everything to everybody and for a little while there is the excitement of some sort of balance. A world weary companion and partner for Martha, hopeless romantic mate for Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), friend in appreciating the world’s wonders for Amy, and a lustful playmate for the self absorbed firestarter Alisha (Elle Fanning). The first act is a civil war of fashion etiquettes and secret rendezvous. Relationship dynamics and personal insecurities take the stage. It’s fitting that Amy sings Aura Lea, a classic civil war tune, commonly recognized as “Love Me Tender”, while she is birdwatching. It catches the tone of this act adroitly. The clashes here are electric to watch because of the underlying danger that is constantly present.
Colin Farrell’s male gaze and desire fills in all the quiet moments with a dark foreboding sexual tension. Those moments are often diffused by loaded tilts of the head or fast quips that one can’t help but chuckle. It’s actually very fun until the inevitable happens and the game is up. In the last act, the Corporal unleashes his harsh male reality over the women and there is suddenly a shift in the power dynamic. Miss Martha, at a loss for how to protect her flock, has them gathered together to assess their situation. It is the youngest children that discover and execute the plan to save them. Their logic is pure, free from the corruption of desire that Corporal McBurney has brought into their school.
The story Sofia Coppola tells is different than the one Don Siegel tells in his original 1971 version. In fact, it’s also different from the original book by Thomas Cullinan. The original printed version alternates points of view with every chapter revealing every changing narrator as unreliable. Everyone is out for everybody else and this stark emotional existence creates a taut thriller that has very little to do with nurturing the growth of a group of young women. Don Siegel’s film embellishes in extremes to fit into a southern gothic genre. Shamelessly about a soldier finding himself amongst a group of sex deprived women, it includes sultry dream sequences throughout. Inner thoughts and flashbacks let the audience know with no intrigue who is very bad. Siegel also takes his time with the bloody turn of events in the last third of the film. Could that Martha (Geraldine Page) possibly be enjoying this? Maybe. Her story is even darker.
Her motivations are haunted by an
incestuous backstory that Coppola removed to maintain clarity on the theme of desire. Clint Eastwood plays against type as a very terrible guy. In the first moment of meeting Eastwood’s McBurney he plants a cringe worthy kiss on the lips of the 13 year old girl that finds him as if that would disguise him from the nearby Confederates. He goes from despicable to monstrous by the end of the film. Even when Farrell is at his most brutish dark self, his emotions are accessible because there is a logic to how he gets there. It took a female director to find and plot out the very human story in this scenario. This 2017 update is absolutely Sofia Coppola’s story and film.
Coppola always delivers on her representations of women but is also accused of misrepresentation to tell the stories in her films. Where is Hallie, the black maid in the original story, and why is there a movie set in the civil war with not one black person? It is a fair question in a necessary conversation. Coppola says that she couldn’t properly deliver that character’s story and removed her instead of glossing over it. It’s a fair answer because the story belongs to the storyteller. It begs the bigger question of what the role of an auteur is in 2017. Is it not enough to visually tell a story with precise emotional calibration and cinematography without moving social issues forward? Perhaps not in today’s polarized culture, but Sofia Coppola made the film that she was compelled to make following her artistic compass.
The Beguiled is in theaters now.