"We ask for your protection over our school and we prey that we will be kept from harm throughout the night."
When it comes to modern auteurs who deal with a consistent theme throughout their entire body of work, Sofia Coppola possibly stands out as the best example of that. I would say all of her films are about isolation in one way or another, the effects it has on the human psyche and our subsequent desire to seek some kind of connection. Her latest film ‘The Beguiled’ is not only her first feature film since 2013’s stylish but disappointingly empty ‘The Bling Ring’ and earned the filmmaker the prestigious best director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is an injured Union soldier who finds himself on the run as a deserter during the Civil War. He seeks refuge at an all-female Southern boarding school where the teachers and students seem more than willing to help. Soon, sexual tensions lead to dangerous rivalries as the women tend to his wounded leg while offering him comfort and companionship.
I think it is fitting that ‘The Beguiled’ sees Coppola reteaming with Kirsten Dunst, as the two previously worked together on ‘Marie Antoinette’ whose elaborate period setting and lavish cinematography feel present once again here. But even more prevalent is the first film the in which the two collaborated, Coppola’s breakout hit ‘The Virgin Suicides’ as both it and ‘The Beguiled’ have a strong thematic connection. As I said before, all of Coppola’s films seem to deal with isolation and connections in one way or another but it’s her earliest and her latest features that seem to share an undercurrent of intimacy. In both movies Coppola seems to have little interest in the larger picture surrounding the events she depicts or the connotations they may have. She simply wants to convey a story from a specific perspective and on that front she does a superb job.
To say ‘The Beguiled’ is making a statement on something would be untrue. Unlike the 1971 movie based upon the same novel which was about, in its own director’s words “the basic desire of women to castrate men” (anxious much?), there is no real meaning to the images of Coppola’s movie. But those images in question are hauntingly beautiful and strikingly personal. Most of those shots are static for the first half of the movie, with Coppola’s camera patiently lingering on each image in an unnervingly still manner. Then during the second half of the movie we see more movement both from the camera and from the narrative.
It seems almost eerily distant in its approach as the slow build of tension throughout the house is so gradual that one might even miss it. It creeps rather than explodes and the performances complement this idea as well. Colin Farrell portrays a man whose tactics are shrewd, sometimes to the detriment of the movie where his character decisions feel a bit too irrational, but at the same time Coppola makes it clear that the focus is on the environment and dynamic of the house itself as it changes, not necessarily on what makes it change. In a similar way to how we never uncover the real reason behind the suicide of the Lisbon sisters in ‘The Virgin Suicides’ (that’s not a spoiler, it’s the title of the movie), ‘The Beguiled’ only seeks to portray this isolated location and its twisted descent.
That descent in question may be underwhelming for some, but the method in which Coppola takes us there is so involving and masterful that one will struggle to look away. The increasingly unhinged attitude of the women who resort to jealousy, spite and rage as this obsession envelopes their domesticity is brilliantly conveyed by Nicole Kidman, Dunst and Elle Fanning in particular. As the wounded soldier recovers the girls compete for his attention, and he himself makes the fatal mistake of indulging their rivalry. The patient stance of the movie means that it never feels like it is explicitly condoning or condemning anyone, just observing as the phenomenon takes hold.
Despite being the perspective being more restrained than Coppola’s other movies, the images she composes are striking on their ability to leave a lasting impression. The cinematography is at once deep and meditative but also eerie just by what it refuses to show. There’s a sense of feeling and atmosphere to every major shot that not only establishes the mood of the narrative as a whole but also does so much to establish the isolated nature of these characters as well as their ever shifting dynamic. When more soldiers arrive to investigate it feels like an invasion of this territory. As the situation escalates the forced calmness imposed upon the house is possibly the most frightening aspect of the entire movie. Coppola never needs to resort to broader statements about what her story means, the story in itself is more than interesting enough.
Brilliantly crafted and utterly involving for its entire runtime, ‘The Beguiled’ is an isolated and patient drama that displays Sofia Coppola’s more ruthless side as a storyteller.