Year: 2017
Director(s): Sofia Coppola
Writer(s): Thomas Cullinan, Sofia Coppola
Region of Origin: US

Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Rating: R
35mm, Color, 93 mins

Synopsis: During the Civil War, young sheltered women take in a wounded Union soldier at an all-girls school in Virginia. Soon, the house is taken over with sexual tension, rivalries, and an unexpected turn of events. (Source)

It wouldn’t seem like it at first glance, but The Beguiled finds Sofia Coppola coming full circle. Taking what she originally explored in The Virgin Suicides, Coppola has created an inverse, spiritual sequel, pushing wartime malaise, societal pressure and repression to the fore and turning it on its head. The result is a story we’ve seen countless times before, but turned almost unrecognizable due to its rarely-seen female perspective. Coppola is clearly having fun with the material, but while there is some dark humor underneath the razor’s edge, the affair is also an unbelievably terrifying one, sizzling with tension and precision. Anchoring Coppola’s keen direction is a powerful ensemble that’s irresistible from top to bottom, be it Nicole Kidman’s uneasy stoicism or Colin Farrell’s wicked charm. Despite the lack of ghouls or creatures, this may be one of the year’s greatest horror films, one that strikes a deep nerve to confront the tenuous relationship between necessity and burning desire.

The film opens with a jolt, as wounded Union soldier Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) is discovered by Amy (Oona Laurence) the youngest of an all-girls boarding school. As it’s the Christian thing to do, Amy brings McBurney to the school for aid, where head mistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), fellow teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and a few others have taken up shelter midway into the Civil War. Martha and the girls are openly disconcerted by the interloper, but for reasons of their own, collectively decide to allow him a place to heal. McBurney’s stay ends up surprising both him and his company, as his disarming persona begins to attract the diverse set of women for different reasons. It doesn’t take long before a sly cat-and-mouse game forms, one in which McBurney and his newfound caretakers find themselves in over their heads.

Coppola’s intentions are telegraphed right from the start, in which the school’s youngest, Amy, hums a delicate tune while picking mushrooms amidst distant cannon fire. Presented through a hazy patina of uncertainty and Philippe Le Sourd’s atmospheric photography, Coppola sets the stage for what ultimately becomes a haunting juxtaposition between innocence, chaos and primal urge. Diving into things almost immediately, Coppola keeps tensions fraught throughout, systematically delineating her characters, their wants, dreams and affections before breaking them down, driving each person to the edge. Through this, Coppola creates a fascinating microcosm of femininity left to its own devices, thrown for a loop with the introduction of new possibilities and experiences. Despite the film’s myriad of ideas and themes, Coppola focus is the idea that none of her complex characters can be reduced to one, simple trait. As each character learns more about themselves and an outside world they can’t fathom, Coppola slowly tightens the noose until things dovetail into an almost unbearable final act, never holding back on graphic repercussions ranging from the physical, psychological or even emotional.

As mentioned, the ensemble is irresistible. As the school’s matriarch, Nicole Kidman is haunting, leading things with damning restraint and and a coldness that reveals frailty. Kidman is at her best, keeping things ambiguous, but also relatable while constantly transforming with each unpredictable situation. Next up, Kirsten Dunst’s Edwina brings to life a character whose repressed desires court tragedy and complicated choices. Dunst plays the character with utmost sincerity, making her journey that much more devastating. Elle Fanning’s Alicia plays the flirt, with the actor offering a more textured and weightier variation on a theme. Her exploits feel like more than salacious frivolity but rather a genuine search for connection and an attempt to push her boundaries. As the only male in the film, Colin Farrell is a real force to be reckoned with. In tandem with Coppola’s female gaze, Farrell comes alive, making McBurney someone we’re simultaneously attracted to and appalled by. Not to be outdone, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard and Angourie Rice all depth to each scene, even in more limited roles.

There’s a lot going on in The Beguiled, and just like its characters, it would be unfair to reduce the film to just a few of its intricately rendered facets. The bottom line, however, is that Coppola has crafted a masterclass of tension and terror, dissecting female gaze, societal perception and haunting repercussion with dread and moody angst.  This is a film that’s as playfully wicked as it is deathly horrifying, and there isn’t a single frame that feels out of place.

SG