Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of the southern gothic melodrama The Beguiled illustrates the director’s command over atmosphere.
The only things surrounding the mansion are weeping willows and cicadas. Lying deep in the heart of Antebellum Virginia, it’s probably more than a day’s ride to the nearest neighbor, let alone to a town. The mansion, built in a Greek revival style that had once been elegant, but has begun to decay over time, is home to Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, a boarding school run by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). For many years the school had believed itself protected from the horrors of the Civil War, but nothing can hold life at bay for very long. Sofia Coppola’s 2017 movie The Beguiled is about what happens when the idyll of the privileged is disturbed.
Coppola’s movie is the second adaptation of a 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan, after the 1971 movie, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood, a trashy, sexist exploitation flick with the atmosphere of a Tennessee Williams penned horror story. Coppola’s version shares many of the same basic plot beats, but it is a work of transformation, telling the story from the point of view of the women, and shifting, in ways both large and small, the interpersonal gender politics at play.
The action of The Beguiled begins like that of a fairy tale: a young student encounters a wounded Union soldier, Captain John McBurney (Colin Farrell) while she is collecting mushrooms in the forest. Is he a wolf or a prince in disguise? McBurney is brought back to the boarding school where he is nursed. Slowly, he begins to insert himself into the routine of life at the school, and captures the imagination of the female residents – from Miss Martha to the disappointed and unfulfilled French teacher Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), to the sullen and sneaky teenager Miss Alicia (Elle Fanning).
It is all very proper and genteel at Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies. The characters sit down at dinner in their finest, corsets and petticoats are worn, the day is ended with a prayer, when a voice is raised it is shattering. The cinematography by Phillippe Le Sourd (with whom Coppola would go on to work with on On the Rocks and Priscilla) is sumptuous, bathed in the pink light of twilight, and mist wafting through Spanish Moss. The nighttime scenes are lit by candle light, allowing the characters to hide their true intentions in the shadows. It seems that the social rituals and aesthetics are used by the characters as a checks-and-balance against their carnal desires, as both a mask and a means of distraction. In all of Coppola’s movies, the silences speak louder than any piece of dialogue. In The Beguiled, every scene is a game of chess, even the most convivial.
Coppola has long been concerned with characters, especially women, trapped in a gilded cage – from the Lisbon Sisters peeking out of the barred windows of their suburban home in The Virgin Suicides to Scarlett Johannson sitting on the bed in her Tokyo hotel room in Lost in Translation to Marie Antoinette’s dress matching the wallpaper of Versailles in Marie Antoinette. In The Beguiled, the women are doing very well for themselves at the boarding school. They have effectively cut themselves off from the rest of the world, and set up a makeshift matriarchy, with Miss Martha as a regal leader and the others as a senate. McBurney’s appearance breaks up their Themiscyra, bringing up him the outside world that they had left behind. He serves as a constant reminder of the ugliness of war and the messiness of sexual desire and human existence. How each woman responds to this is the main dramatic crux of The Beguiled.
At the time of its release, The Beguiled received criticism for its portrayal of non-white characters. There are none. It is a movie set in the Civil War-era South and there are no people of color to be seen anywhere. The enslaved people who used to work at the boarding school are done away with a tossed-off, “The slaves left.” The character of Edwina, played by Dunst, is mixed race, a fact that informs her sense of isolation and McBurney uses as a tool of manipulation, has been white-washed. When asked at the time, Coppola responded that, as a white woman, she would not have been able to do justice to the experience of women of color at the time. In an e-mail to Buzzfeed’s Alana Bennett she wrote, “ I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-Ameircan character I would want to show them. I was clear about my decision, because I want to be respectful to that history.” Whether that’s a cop-out or someone staying in their lane is up to the individual viewer of The Beguiled, but what it does is have the effect of flattening the world. It narrows the scope of all of the characters in the movie.
The Beguiled is a mood piece, an exercise in style and atmosphere by one of the great living visual storytellers. Yet, equal consideration is given to what is given to what is happen as to how it is happening. There are sequences in The Beguiled as eerie and unsettling as anything that Coppola has done outside of The Virgin Suicides, and show that perhaps she has the muscles for horror. Dread is present from the opening notes of a young girl humming over the soundtrack, and builds slowly by degrees until the pressure is nearly unbearable, leading to a supremely satisfying denouement.
The Beguiled is now available to watch on digital and on demand.