Sofia Coppola’s take on Thomas Cullinan’s novel The Beguiled (or The Painted Devil)—and by association Don Siegel’s 1971 film adaptation—is a dusky, sensual and twisted sort of fairytale. Coppola’s version is vastly different tonally, as she attempts to share the same story from the perspective of its leading women. Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Union soldier, is found in the Virginia woods by young schoolgirl Amy (Oona Laurence) and brought to the mansion which forms Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies. His presence disrupts the girls’ otherwise secluded routine of prayer, chores in the garden and French and music lessons. While the younger schoolgirls and their teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) are piqued by McBurney’s presence, the curt Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) is less than pleased.
You are not a guest, and we are not here to entertain you. Kidman’s Martha firmly states.
Amy convinces Martha to allow the Corporal to stay in their home under the guise of Christian charity, and as Martha unhappily meticulously tends to his wounds, the girls—including Edwina—gossip about him curiously, despite their fear of such a strange “blue-belly.” These young women share a sequestered environment that is essentially their entire world. Most often it is safe, but their supposedly secure home quickly darkens with the presence of this unfamiliar man.
The Beguiled, like much of Coppola’s work, almost floats in a dreamy, nearly-timeless limbo, both cocooned and imprisoned. With nature as an incessant background hum, Phillipe Le Sourd’s 35mm shots evoke the gauzy ambiance that’s become Coppola’s standard. Rich wide exterior shots of the lush forest, garden, and white pillars of Martha’s mansion give the characters their place, while the tight, spine-tingling intensity of the interior shots provide a deep sense of unease. Music is not used often; when it is, however, it is rife with meaning and purpose, only adding to the film’s flawless pace.
There is nothing more frightening than a startled woman with a gun.
The Beguiled most effectively examines the actions of the women in the film as they are confronted with forbidden desire and then the emasculated rage of their uninvited guest as he ravages angrily through the house shakily wielding Martha’s revolver. Perhaps most interesting is the sudden shift in the dynamic of the girls—and woman—as they silently and quickly unify themselves against the threat they find in the corporal.
It reminds me, in some way, of one of the final scenes of Big Little Lies. In the show, the women seamlessly stand together in the face of male violence, and they do so entirely non-verbally. I discussed this in a review I posted on my Letterboxd of Big Little Lies because I was so taken by this particular scene. The short version is that I read about women historically communicating silently, much more so than men ever have, which is ultimately the result of misogyny and the forced silencing of women throughout history. In Big Little Lies, all of the women—even Renata who is out of the loop—connect with each other, understanding the situation on at least a basic level, and banding together to protect Jane and Celeste against a violent and abusive man. This is reflected in The Beguiled, although with a few more words. Still, the concept is the same: women (and young girls) who fly to each others’ sides in the face of the man they fear (the Corporal) as a result of his intense violence. I find this idea utterly fascinating and extraordinarily relevant, even if all else is not.
Kidman’s performance is excellently nuanced and full of perfectly executed understatement. Her portrayal of the calculating and powerful Martha is an impressive one. It’s exactly in her wheelhouse. Elle Fanning is untamed and wildly flirtatious as Alicia, and Dunst is the melancholic and searching teacher Edwina. Both performances deeply contrast with each other, while providing a provocative layer of jealousy and sexuality to the film. Farrell is dynamic as Corporal John McBurney and portrays his shifts in personality from easy-going and charming to outright violent and angry with ease.
The Beguiled is easily one of my favorite films of 2017. I have been enthralled by Coppola’s timeless, daring, and dreamy directorial choices for quite some time, from The Virgin Suicides to Marie Antoinette. This film, however, is perhaps my favorite of her work. There is something in the way Coppola contrasts the dangerous power of the girls and women to soft pastel frocks they don and schoolgirl plaits tied with ribbons that tame their hair which captures my attention so acutely.