The Beguiled

MPAA Rating: R | Rating: ★★★½
Release year: 2017
Genre: Drama Director: Sofia Coppola

Film criticism has spoken of “the male gaze” since the 1970s, the way in which the world is viewed (and objectified) through primarily men’s eyes and vision. Sofia Coppola explores “the male gauze,” the wounds inflicted by and upon women, as she embeds her characteristic atmospheric ennui in Civil War-era Virginia in The Beguiled, a wispy, moody melodrama with a steadily growing dis-ease and danger. A girl at an all-female seminary boarding house discovers a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell), and helps him back to the isolated abode in the mossy, murky woods. The school’s caretaker Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) practices good Southern hospitality while remaining guarded for the girls’ sake, as lonely Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and the amatory Alicia (Elle Fanning) vie for the Corporal McBurney’s attention. As the soldier recovers in the care of the seven residents, the underlying tension–sexual and social–increases with unrelenting pressure until violence is the only possible release.

Everyone is trapped in The Beguiled. The effects of the war on the isolated estate are obvious–the slaves have left, the men are dead and gone, the roads are empty apart from the periodic passing of troops, and yet the women in the house remain. The house is not yet decrepit or deserted, but it does show the stains from years of disrepair and the infiltration of the overgrown foliage. The girls attempt to care for the gardens and fields, but they neither enjoy the work nor are much good at it. Cannons boom in the distance, reminding the inhabitants of the violence surrounding them beyond the woods.  There are frequent images of the women on the balcony or in the window, peering outwards with a spyglass or binoculars with a sense of longing and desperation. In a moment of quiet confession (and not-too-subtle seduction), McBurney asks Edwina what she would wish for if she could have anything in the world. Her response is telling: she wants someone (anyone!) to take her away from this place, a prison in the woods.

What keeps the women of The Beguiled in this prison? The war, certainly, but also societal expectations and institutional religion. Their Catholic faith is on full display through prayers and petitions, and the acting out of the younger girls over the course of the film feels like a quiet rebellion against religious mores and doctrine. Women are expected to be demure, proper, educated (but only just enough!), and acquiescent to the cultural norms. The presence of McBurney disrupts this ethos, but his intrusion may be more of the boiling point of a smoldering discontent within the household. It makes one wonder whether the Christian charity exhibited was ever truly there, or if it’s a facade, deconstructed by the intrusion of the Civil War in general, and Colin Farrell’s mercenary soldier in particular. A male, a Yankee, a soldier, and an Irish immigrant to boot, he is the ultimate Outsider to the Southern women. Equally victim and victimizer, McBurney is delighted to be seduced as well as seducer. He initially appears to be enjoying the situation, cared for by a cadre of beautiful girls and women, assuming any of them are present for his care and enjoyment. Farrell’s performance is subtle and skilled enough to elicit just enough sympathy with McBurney. The performances from Kidman and Dunst, too, are well-crafted and interesting, especially as each woman makes remarkably different moral choices regarding McBurney by the climax of the film. Their portrayal of Southern propriety coming apart at the seams is wonderfully melodramatic without ever feeling silly or superfluous.

Sofia Coppola won the Best Director award at Cannes, and it’s well deserved. The design and art direction, the gauzy colors and lovely cinematography, the impeccable and timely sound design and score, the compelling performances from the entire cast–she’s truly made a work of art with The Beguiled. The opening and closing shots are some of the best I’ve seen in theaters this year. Still, its narrative is just slight enough, its characters’ interior struggles and machinations too enigmatic, that the first viewing somehow left me unmoved, at least in comparison with Coppola’s previous masterpieces, The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation (the latter being one of my all-time favorite films). Coppola’s theme of aristocratic ennui set in luxurious surroundings while characters struggle with the inability to find true community and connection with others remains a constant, and an audience’s mileage may vary with how well they connect with this topic. (“Awww, the bored, wealthy white people feel sad? Boohoo.”) Still, The Beguiled is beguiling; it beckons and woos, inviting consideration of the temptations which ensnare us and keep us in their grip, the seen and unseen.

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