starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning
written for the screen and directed by Sofia Coppola
by Walter Chaw Sofia Coppola tells Romanticist versions of one transitional moment in her life. She turns it in her hand to see where the light catches it. Her films are examinations of the liminal field between girlhood and womanhood, littered with casualties and trenches, the one left behind and the other ahead, maybe eternally out of reach. Her moment is immortalized one way in father Francis Ford Coppola's decision to cast her as the main love interest in The Godfather Part III, a late replacement for Winona Ryder. Sofia's failure, and her father's betrayal of her by failing to protect her from it, is traumatic, though perhaps not much more than any adolescence--just public, cast into the collective, as it were, for the wolves to worry. It is one of a select company of misfires that is almost universally known. Sofia immortalizes the devastation of her experience in movies that speak, lyrically, to the tragedy of coming-of-age for a young woman. Hers is as coherent and important a body of work as any contemporary filmmaker's, made more so, perhaps, by her status as the only woman director in the United States permitted to explore an elliptical, unpopular theme across several projects.
She continues now with The Beguiled, her updating of Don Siegel's strange little horror film, remaking it to reflect her own obsessions. Where Siegel's adaptation of the Thomas Cullinan novel is centred on a cunning man getting what's coming to him for trying to manipulate a household of women, Coppola's is interested in how a man becomes a catalyzing agent for the destructive impulses of women. It sees its man, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), as the Serpent in Eden. He represents masculine sexuality. He's what's wrong with the world. For Siegel, the problem was repression of a woman's sexuality. For Coppola, the problem is that the world intrudes on a girl's immaculate self-containment, and suddenly what was pristine is now corrupt, what was once sacred is now lost and irretrievable. Siegel's original is a precursor to films that allegorize the dangers of bumbling into some place you're not wanted. It's Shirley Jackson's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Coppola's film's closest antecedent is Picnic at Hanging Rock--it's even shot in the same gauzy, languid, hallucinogenic style. There's no non-diegetic soundtrack, which marks a radical departure for Coppola. Its establishing shots are held a beat longer, placing its young women protagonists comfortably in nature through veils of moss, in and among bellum veldts of green and brown. Establishing her characters as tied closely to the Natural, the distant backdrop of the Civil War comes into focus as a particular affront. It is the Faulknerian macrocosm set against the picture's microcosm; The Beguiled is lower-case passion play. Coppola makes a claim here as a distaff Terrence Malick.
John is discovered in the woods, the wolf to young Amy's Red Riding Hood as Amy (Oona Laurence) forages for edible mushrooms. There are poisonous ones as well in these woods and Amy knows the difference. Amy brings John back to the boarding house where she lives with matriarch Ms. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), Ms. Dabney (Kirsten Dunst), and girls Alicia (Elle Fanning), Marie (Addison Riecke), Jane (Angourie Rice), and Emily (Emma Howard). They've sequestered themselves behind iron gates as the war rages around them: close enough to hear but away from the killing fields. They take their lessons. They make music for one another. The last shot of the film frames the girls on the front steps of their oubliette, arranged as if for a portrait, shot through the gate in suggestion that the last act of this play is closing off the audience. Tied to that is the idea that the audience is voyeur--that there is no "gaze" without men, and without a man in their midst, there's no longer an opportunity to penetrate their secrecy. Men want to look. Are always looking. They are all insinuation. In the absence of soundtrack, the booming of cannons in the distance provides something like a slow, rolling drumbeat. It sounds like thunder heralding a storm. John has been grievously injured; Ms. Farnsworth, Ms. Dabney at her side, stitches his leg together, and then time passes. John heals. He works in the yard and eyes watch him from the house. He makes promises to each of the girls. One night, he tries to keep one and earns the enmity of all of them.
In The Beguiled, Coppola has a character on the verge of adolescence, Alicia; one who has let it pass her unharmed, Ms. Farnsworth; and one who has let it injure her, Ms. Dabney. John, by his presence, exploits each of them: Alicia with promises of sex, Ms. Dabney with promises of love, Ms. Farnsworth with promises of security. I love the moment where John tells Ms. Farnsworth that the garden has gotten wild and could use a man's ability to weed, to molest, to tame nature to fit within prescribed boundaries. It's the main unifying problem of poetry from Wordsworth through to Wallace Stevens, this proscription of ideas of order around things that by their nature cannot be contained. John tries to control the women in the same way, and Siegel's film is concerned primarily with his manipulations. Coppola's version is more interested in what the women want and why they're moved to act the way they do. When John is out of control, the women regain it. Ms. Dabney takes what she wants. So does Alicia. So does Ms. Farnsworth, in the end. They find fulfillment, even if it's a man who forces them to crisis. There's a scene early where one of the girls tries to shoehorn herself into a corset; I don't think any of them are bothering by the end.
Like Kimberly Peirce's Carrie, Coppola's The Beguiled is a telling of a tale familiar as a man's tale, recentred from a woman's perspective. Largely lost in the popular conversation around different artistic voices being afforded the same opportunities is the verity that beyond any political notion of fairness, women and people of colour bring entirely different sensibilities and perspectives to a project. The choices Coppola makes in The Beguiled--the things she shows and the things she doesn't show (the amputation sequence, for one)--aren't the ones Siegel made with the same material and opportunities. Her gaze is never prurient--no slow pans up and down bodies here, nor cameras trailing the heroines as they walk from room to room. Instead: a scene where Ms. Farnsworth gives an unconscious John a bath with a washcloth and notes the tremor in her hand and throat. It's the kind of movie Jane Campion or Claire Denis or Lynne Ramsay might make in countries and places less mad than the United States; it's unwise, I think, to underestimate the astonishment that Coppola could produce a work like this here, however she managed it. It's a story of powerful women who decide, in the end, that they're better off without the troubles of the world, so they disappear into it like a catfish sinking into the dark of a verdant Southern pond. The Beguiled is fantastic.