Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is a reexamination of the many critical themes that ornate her unblemished filmography. Here, she reconsiders the masculine vanity that she first addressed in The Virgin Suicides, where she replaces Josh Hartnett’s Trip Fontaine with Colin Farrell’s Cpl. John McBurney. In these two characters, and a multitude of men in between, she exposes a specific masculine preoccupation that prizes women for their sexuality yet responds with hostile confusion at efforts to exercise their agency. This element is considerably underplayed in Don Siegel’s original adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel, which tellingly opens on a voiceover from McBurney’s perspective as Clint Eastwood’s hushed and gritty tenor is matched with barbaric Civil War imagery. Coppola’s film opens instead with a young girl whistling the Civil War tune “Lorena”, a lyrical song with a profound history that crossed Northern and Southern hostilities as an expression of compassion and longing. The considerably more empathetic and wistful opening in contrast to Siegel’s version isn’t necessarily a condemnation, but rather an intriguing counterpoint: the two films tell the same story but are firmly entrenched in different worldviews.
It’s Amy (Oona Laurence) who discovers John McBurney (Colin Farrell) outside the all-girls’ school with a severely wounded leg. McBurney charms the young girl, cooing her reticence to shelter a Yankee soldier on Virginian soil, as the two make it back to the school. There, Headmistress Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and the school’s small enrollment opt to mend the now unconscious corporal back to health. While the headmistress is decidedly chilly about the corporal's presence in the school, the others find his presence to be a welcome relief from their isolated routine. None more then Alicia (Elle Fanning), who doesn’t so much greet the soldier as ooze sexuality in his general direction. There’s also the headmistress’ aid, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) who greets the corporal with measured hospitality, though is quickly smitten by McBurney’s charms. The longer that McBurney remains in the presence of these women of the school, the more he begins to maneuver and manipulate their geniality. He conquers the space, with even the Headmaster falling under the spell of his siren song.
There’s a decidedly ambiguous quality to Coppola’s version that leads viewers to question McBurney’s intentions, but not necessarily condemn him. This is in stark contrast to Siegel’s version, which relies on a variety of flashbacks to demonstrate that the corporal is not to be trusted. Rather, Coppola’s vision aligns with the women of the film, where a conscious effort is made to refrain from observing McBurney in solitude, but rather only in his interactions with Alicia, Amy, Edwina, and the headmistress. We don’t get into McBurney’s head and that decision emphasizes the sort of heart-delaying tension that the picture evokes. Moreover, we’re often observing the women in conversation about McBurney, where a mythology begins to develop about his very presence. Coppola’s film does a particularly remarkable job of stressing what makes McBurney so appealing to the women. Scenes where they interact, often one-on-one, are astute in how the corporal observes the women: a particular sequence with Edwina emphasizes her slender frame, anxieties, and the elaborate yet thankless effort placed on her appearance. These gestures are largely ephemeral details that accumulate in a humoerous and moving way.
While The Beguiled shares a particular thematic kinship with all of Coppola’s films, none feel more connected than her debut feature The Virgin Suicides. The toxic air that encircles the end of The Virgin Suicides seems to have drifted over to the Virginian terrain of The Beguiled, evidently only cleared by the presence of McBurney. A dreamlike haze engulfs the women of the school, where their preoccupations with the corporal mute Northern and Southern conflict heard just miles away from their gate. It’s not much different from how the boys of The Virgin Suicides fixate on the Lisbon sisters, their startling beauty distracting them from the reality that their community and a family were decaying before them. Or consider how Trip Fontaine persuades the Lisbon family to break from their harsh protocol, before effectively disposing of Lux Lisbon. That kind of rejection is echoed to painful effect in The Beguiled, made all the more profound given Kristen Dunst’s casting as both Lux and Edwina. If Dunst was the “still point of the moving world” in The Virgin Suicides, then Coppola reminds audiences of the bitter reality of what that comment means in The Beguiled.
The formal qualities of The Beguiled, which would earn Coppola a Best Director citation at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, are exquisite. While one can’t help but shake what a Harry Savidies rendition of The Beguiled would have looked like, Philippe Le Sourd (whose life-pass credit includes lensing Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster) composes such lush and vivid frames drenched in candlelight. And the rhythmic editing from Coppola stalwart Sarah Flack accents the picture’s tension-filled ambiguity. Leaving my screening of The Beguiled, I was enthralled by every component about the film, perhaps none more than Coppola’s continued disinterest of narrative convention. Her films fixate on fleeting moments and poetic insecurities of the heart. I don’t think there’s a better filmmaker who understands why those two things are so profoundly cinematic.