The Beguiled, 2017.
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Colin Farrell and Angourie Rice.
During the American Civil War, a girl from a Confederate boarding school discovers a wounded Union soldier. She takes him back to the school, where his wounds are looked after by the headmistress, her assistant and the other pupils. As he recovers in this all-female world, his presence affects everybody and they all vie for his attention.
Sofia Coppola films always seem to grab attention at Cannes, either by accident or design. Remember The Bling Ring (2013), when life bizarrely imitated art? This time round, she won the Best Director accolade for a film that could far too easily be described as yet another re-make. That would be too easy – and nothing less than facile.
The original version of The Beguiled (1971) is usually described as a Clint Eastwood movie, with the film’s solitary male in the forefront. Not so with Coppola’s interpretation which, while the narrative follows much the same path, is a very different beast altogether. Now it’s seen very much through the eyes of the women and, if the film belongs to anybody this time around, it’s Nicole Kidman’s Martha Farnsworth, head mistress at the school. But, despite the setting, the potential for steamy sexual tension only just manages to simmer instead of reaching boiling point.
It remains a film about sexual passion, about how the mere presence of one person can completely upturn an entire community, in this case one man among a group of women. Men have no place in the school or in its lessons: when Martha conjugates the French verb etre, there’s no masculine, only feminine. And that isn’t just an indicator of the set-up, it also says a lot about her and her need for control, right down to the last word she teaches her girls. It’s her way or no way. And she is icy cold in her dominance.
Which is why, initially at least, the soldier falls foul of her. Colin Farrell’s Corporal Burney flirts with her, just as he does with the others, and looks like he may take things further. But he’s also toying with the affections of Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and encouraging teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning). In fact, everybody in the school is acutely aware of him, responding to both him and his attention. Dressing in their best gowns for dinner and mustering what they can in the way of make up is all for his benefit and an outward sign of what’s going on in their heads.
The visuals are one of the film’s biggest strengths. Stunning early shots of the woods surround the school, beautiful mists – and a touch of the unexpected. As we look down a corridor of trees, we expect somebody to walk in the same direction: what we get is somebody walking across it, from left to right. Interiors are built around the women, all dressed in various shades of cream and nearly all of them with fair hair. This not-such-a-gentleman definitely prefers blondes. Yet, for all Farrell’s manipulation and the fact that the women have lived without the company of men, there’s surprisingly little of that all-important sweaty sexual tension. Flirting, certainly, girlish giggles and some repressed intensity from Dunst, but not much more after that.
That’s because this is a surprisingly cold film, so cold that it has ice running through its veins. Part of that is down to Kidman as the controlling Martha, but there’s also something calculated about the direction: a deliberately slow pace and scenes constructed like tableaux create a distance between the movie and its audience. Even the ensemble cast, strong though it is, can’t overcome this. The stand-out performance comes from Kirsten Dunst, the solitary older woman yearning for love of the emotional and physical kind. It only takes a few – again calculated – words from Farrell’s soldier to break down barriers that have taken years to build.
There’s much to enjoy and admire about The Beguiled, not the least of which is the way it’s taken a well-known film on a different journey. The cinematography is a feast, the design and acting just as good. But what holds it back from being something special is, dare I say it, Sofia Coppola herself.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★