***1/2 out of ****
(for some sexuality, violent injuries, and brief language)
Released: June 23, 2017 NY/LA; June 30 expands
Runtime: 93 minutes
Director: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Emma Howard, Addison Riecke
It’s pretty rare when a non-specific one-word title so effectively fits the movie its labeling, because general descriptors can apply to so many other stories, but The Beguiled is perfectly named in every conceivable way.
Whether describing the young women at the center of this tense Southern Gothic tale, or the eerie hypnotic tone that steeps director Sofia Coppola’s aesthetic, or simply what we the audience become, The Beguiled lives up to its name.
Exploring polar opposite versions of Coppola’s young & entitled modern day female Bling Ring burglars, The Beguiled is a psychodrama that emerges from dropping virile masculinity into the midst of sheltered femininity. It’s 1864 Virginia, and a girl from an all-female boarding school discovers a wounded and sickly Union soldier (Colin Farrell) in the woods nearby. Despite initial reservations, the head mistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) decides to take the man in, patch him up, and hopefully save his life.
Cloistered there are the teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and five students descending in age from teen (Elle Fanning’s Alicia) to grade school. Once the girls’ initial collective hysteria calms down, the reactions to the man vary, from intrigued to cautious to fearful – but all completely fascinated.
As the soldier heals and fears subside, the girls are, well, beguiled by his charms, and the three oldest women find their sexuality awakened, albeit with chaste hesitation. Each tests the boundaries of their passions: Edwina is shy, Alicia more forward, while Martha exerts control. Martha, being the oldest, knows how to draw the line with her desires in a way the other two do not.
Even the prepubescent girls can’t help but be drawn to the soldier, as he slyly – even respectfully – spins his web with each. An insidiously gentle tempter, the soldier ingratiates himself with the younger girls as he looks to see which of the women he can successfully seduce, and stirs jealousies among them all. But his prey are the three oldest, and his flattering temptations – each tailored to what each woman needs – grow increasingly harder to resist.
In the hands of a lesser director and cast, with artists more provoked by the lurid melodrama than the human vulnerabilities, this would all be played in amplified strokes and to lesser, baser effect. Instead, Coppola contains everything. It makes for a truer representation of the time and place (as well as a more taut build of suspense), relying on her actresses to summon and wrestle with the carnal urges that belie their Christian morals and social constructs.
Coppola finds potency in simplicity, utilizing lingering looks and stealing glances by the women as they gaze on parts of the soldier’s torso and body. These POV’s aren’t salacious, they’re completely human; internal flirtations that seem harmless at the time, instinctive. But each little indulgence is another step in a downward compulsive spiral.
Farrell is so cunning in how he doesn’t push his seductions, even playing them as virtuous or pure (although keeping his native Irish dialect provides a roguish undercurrent), while the three female leads exude their emotional ids with palpable intensity. Kidman especially, whose Martha is the only one able to also access her ego and super-ego, gives another showcase in what seems to be a new, confident peak in her career.
Both lush and minimalist, Coppola’s elegant yet earthy formalism is a stunning display of what gorgeous restraint can conjure. Director of Photography Philippe Le Sourd (best known for Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster) employs painterly still-frame precision that, quite brilliantly, evokes the period’s neoclassical and romantic portraits. These are some of the best images you’ll see on any screen all year.
Coppola also restrains from using music until the last half hour, and even then only applies ominous drones sparingly. The lack of an orchestral underscore, which allows the breezy Southern air to authenticate the atmosphere – punctuated by war heard in the distance – serves to amplify the veracity of what is otherwise an unabashed exercise in genre, one that crescendos to brutal conclusion.
This isn’t Sofia Coppola’s most thematically layered film (that could be The Virgin Suicides or, yes, even Marie Antoinette; stick it, haters) nor is it her most existentially resonate (make it Suntory Time, Lost in Translation), yet there’s a reason this garnered the Best Director prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival: The Beguiled is Coppola’s most assured work of art.