The Beguiled, dir. Sofia Coppola│With The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola chose a story well suited to her interest in female desire and the insensitivity of men. When a little girl finds Irish Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) in dire straits in some luxurious South Virginia woods and takes him to her half-empty all-female seminary, the wounded deserter thinks he’s just gone to heaven. Not only does he get to be treated for his leg, badly wounded as he was fighting for the Union, he also finds Farsnworth Seminary to be full of opportunities for carnal entertainment. From the mischievous teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning) to the sad and romantic old maid Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), he schemes behind each girl’s back, until his ruthless selfishness comes to light and the power dynamic loses its balance.
But if on paper this story seems ripe for deep and/or funny explorations of the psychology of forbidden desire, it offers little such pleasures in Coppola’s hands. While all the elements are here in the script (and the astonishing cast), Coppola handles them with a detachment and lightness that makes the film subdued to the point of being underwhelming, until dark humour narrowly saves the day.
In a story about desire and betrayal, the characters are poor anchors for those feelings. Coppola spends very little time with each, instead relying heavily on her gorgeous, tableaux-like cinematography and on her audience to fill in the blanks in their personalities and decipher the arcs of their changing emotions. Whether the girls work around the house, study or spend time with the Corporal, these moments are always too brief, as though Coppola was purposefully catching them in extremis. The result is that these characters remain just vague impressions. Although Alicia’s glances at the Corporal make her intentions clear, they reveal nothing else about her. Since she only rarely appears in any other occasion, her rebelliousness appears in a vacuum, and even more so because the other girls barely react to it or even talk with her. These women all live together in difficult times and are of different ages, yet they never seem to have relationships with each other: they do activities together -the film opens on headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) teaching French to some of the younger girls- but don’t connect to each other in a more meaningful way.
The effect of this remoteness is one of irritating elusiveness and haste that leaves the audience wanting more. Even Edwina, -played with heartbreaking grace by Kirsten Dunst in one of the best performances of her career- despite being arguably the most interesting and moving character, remains frustratingly unsubstantial. Through her eyes, Dunst transcribes Edwina’s despair for the freedom the Corporal promises with impressive clarity and subtlety, but Coppola doesn’t give her much space to make those sentiments truly vigorous. Instead, Dunst’s performance works as signposting, suggesting a deep well of sentiments that Coppola, in the short space of 94min, won’t let the audience explore. Perhaps this decision to stay removed from the women’s torturous feelings stems from a refusal to turn them into psycho-bitches, which cinema tends to do with women experiencing forbidden desires. But given the frightening and lonely circumstances in which these women have been living, witnessing their deepest and darkest impulses when seeing a man at last (even if he belongs to the opposite camp) would probably have been acceptable, even if still surprising to some extent. If Coppola had presented her female characters as more complex and human, their extreme reactions when facing the Corporal may have appeared logical rather than unreasonable or even nonsensical, as they occasionally do here.
Nevertheless, Coppola lets human frailty seep through at last when the situation is brought to its crisis point. Eventually, the women can no longer hide their confusion and excitement around the Corporal who himself teases them playfully, making for some of Coppola’s funniest scenes in her filmography. Innuendos around the dinner table suddenly transform the film into a lively comedy where the camera typically bounces between characters to the rhythm of their dirty remarks and discreetly shocked faces. Everyone, the Corporal included, is playing the same ridiculous game of cat and mouse and the dynamics at play become more complicated, and therefore more human. The lines between good and bad behaviour, and good and bad person, start to blur: the girls aren’t totally innocent and the Corporal isn’t the only one to blame in this web of flirtations.
This sense of silliness permeates the whole house and precipitates a succession of catastrophes that, at last, get the characters to play off each other in interesting ways. Once violence comes into the equation, the reactions of all involved become more extreme, but no less questionable. As she did brilliantly in The Virgin Suicides, Coppola maintains ambiguity throughout, refusing to place the blame solely on the Corporal or the girls. Instead, she makes evident the regrets they all feel after losing their temper and their uncertainty when trying to survive each other. Martha’s striving for righteousness is just as frightening as the Corporal’s seediness. This doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t have a feminist approach, on the contrary. The Corporal and the group of girls are placed on the same plane, each terrifying the other in different ways and each unsure of what to do: the Corporal may be a man and have a gun, he is wounded and unable to escape the house; the girls may be physically weaker, they are superior in number and know their surroundings.
From these equal grounds, each new interaction can go both ways, except that Coppola chooses to refocus on the women and their survival tactics. Ultimately, the outcome feels like bad luck for the Corporal, rather than the turn of calculating and determined women fighting for their safety, because their modest plan is depicted as the amusingly panicked yet thoughtful work of very scared but brave women. In the film’s best and funniest sequence, when the solution to their problem is presented to Martha, a very long silence lets the spectator see the controlled terror mixed with relief and premature regret in all these women’s eyes. Just like the Irish Corporal preferred to desert rather than die for a war that wasn’t his, the women of Farnsworth Seminary are scared and ready to fight for their survival: they never were crazy. Yet unlike him, they wouldn’t let their personal desires control them. Coppola, unfortunately, doesn’t take time to delve into these impulses, which feels like a missed opportunity to have this star-studded cast play complex female characters rarely seen on screen.■
The Beguiled│ Director: Sofia Coppola│ Screenplay: Sofia Coppola│ Camera: Philippe Le Sourd│ Editing: Sarah Flack │ Music: Phoenix│ Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kristin Dunst│ Producer: Roman Coppola, Sofia Coppola, Youree Henley│ Production Company: American Zoetrope│Country: USA│ Year: 2017│ Running Time: 93 min.│ International Sales: Focus Features International│ Festival: Cannes IFF 2017│