by Chase Sui Wonders
The Beguiled directed by Sofia Coppola opens in an enveloping fog as the camera crawls through the gnarled and mossed branches of what is meant to be a Civil War period Virginian landscape. Despite the haze of the fog, the colors and textures retain a rich fairytale-like quality. As we move through the dense wood, we hear the eerie high-pitched tune of a little girl singing as she gathers a basket of mushrooms. The camera trails behind her ominously. She knows she has strayed too far from home when suddenly a critically wounded enemy soldier John McBurney (Colin Farrell) emerges from behind a tree begging her for medical care. Following this reveal, it seems that one of the most conventionally frightful moments in the film has already passed. Indeed, Coppola builds the suspense of her film with a much slower burn than what is expected from a more traditional Hollywood Horror with over-the-top shocks. As soon as the opening sequence, she conjures fear in the audience through an unsettling atmosphere ripe with quiet suspense without relying on jump scares to do the emotional legwork.
Much of the film was shot at a historic plantation home turned school for girls outside of New Orleans. The wounded Union soldier is brought back to the schoolhouse led by the puritan matriarch, Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). Coppola makes domestic prisons out of Versailles in Marie Antionette, the suburban home in The Virgin Suicides and the Tokyo Hyatt in Lost in Translation. The Beguiled inherits this motif; the girls of the school are confined by their circumstances, left to fester in their isolated bucolic wasteland. In one particularly poignant scene between McBurney and Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), she remarks that if she could wish for anything in the world she would, “be taken far away from here.” Dunst whispers this line, almost guilty, then swiftly exits the room to find a moment alone. The camera stays with her and studies her muted expression before she dutifully resumes her life as usual. Indeed, Coppola’s protagonists are relatively less chatty than most protagonists. Much of the screen time is spent in silent moments. And this silence gives us the opportunity to watch the characters—their gestures, expressions and subtle glances. Indeed, each small detail of the scene seems to mirror the women’s growing unrest. The cool foggy color palette grows deeper as the story turns dark. In step with the palette progression, the period costumes become more and more revealing (crafted by long time Coppola collaborator and costume designer, Stacey Battat). The deepening necklines on the gowns mirror how the girls tease and taunt their house guest turned prisoner.
Coppola casts away a conventional rising action–climax–conclusion narrative and instead builds a narrative by meticulously arranging a disturbing fever dream where the characters adopt a muted farcical affect. Coppola lets us into the psychology of 6 pent-up, repressed women and girls gradually, through unspoken visual moments. We begin to get used to their flustered and competitive demeanor and through their silence we find depth. At the center of the story sits Miss Martha, stately and striking. Kidman delivers a larger than life performance through micro expressions that contradictorily border on comedy. The expressive flickers of eyes and curling corners of mouths force us to be present, paying close attention to little gestures that advance the story. Indeed, the narrative of the film seems to absorb us through its characters more than it does through its plot.
The bare bones of The Beguiled tell the story of a house full of women repressed, waiting for something to happen—something to pull them out of the swamp they steep in. This call to action comes in the form of the wounded soldier. McBurney’s arrival acts as a catalyst for chaos. He sets the schoolhouse to an inevitable boiling point that blows the cap off of the restraint and self-control each of the women hold in their expressions, demeanors and tightly wound corsets. And all at once, we are thrown around this domestic nightmare. We jump from one character to another, keeping up with the tactical game of every woman for herself that comes scene after scene.
Coppola’s The Beguiled is an adaptation of Don Siegel’s version in 1971 starring Clint Eastwood, but with little resemblance. She masterfully builds this ethereal world by telling the story of a bed-hopping, lecherous soldier from the female perspective, rarely deviating from the girls’ POV. She subverts the story of one man’s sexual conquests by turning McBurney into the pawn of each woman’s desires. Coppola’s film about women by a woman suggests a more meditative approach to the original story. The film deviates from phallocentric order as it paints a uniquely feminine picture of alienation, frustration and repression through little moments as opposed to larger driving plot points and stale male perspective caricatures.
In fact, Coppola makes these antiquated colonial characters take on a topical urgency in the current political Hollywood climate. She deals with under-aged, restrained young girls—a Hollywood subject matter ripe for taboos and infractions. However, Coppola never once indulges the voyeurism the audience experiences in typical romantic narratives (especially stories involving one man and several beautiful women). Instead, Coppola’s creates provocative moments that are distinctly tasteful and never ostentatious or clichéd. The Beguiled is a comedy and a terror and love story and a drama all at once. And yet, the film transcends any reductive classification with ease as it synchronously blends various genres to create a hotbed home of gripping delirium.