Director Sofia Coppola is known for her distinct viewpoint and stylistic mise-en-scène or better said the visual way she puts together a scene, rich with details, color, and most of all feeling. The main feature of all her films is the female mind; how women take in and feel about their sexuality, whether coming of age or mature, their friendships with one another and men, and their overall desire to find and make sense of their place in the world. Today’s films are filled with the male perspective, the male gaze, the male everything you could say, I can’t imagine that Transformers was made with a woman’s point of view in mind, and that is what makes Coppola so special as a director. In her new film, The Beguiled, she gives audiences a melancholic and poignant tale of a group of women and their need for or perhaps rejection of men in a post-Civil War era.
The film is simple on the surface, yet it is a complex story of what happens when a man suddenly disrupts the lives of five females isolated from the world. The film starts out with eleven-year-old Amy going out into the woods to search for mushrooms, when suddenly she comes upon a soldier. Corporal McBurney, a Yankee, is wounded with a bad leg and can barely walk. He ran away from his regiment and is now stuck on Confederate grounds and knows he is doomed if he stays there. He pleads with her and she takes him back to her boarding school for help. When she arrives with him, the girls and women are stunned and shocked, not only is he a Yankee (they really hate Northerners), he is a man.
At the boarding school, led by the head mistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and the school’s main teacher Edwina (Kristen Dunst), the women are kept in charge of the young girls who are left. The rest have been taken back to their homes or have been left behind due to the war. These women haven’t seen their husbands, fathers, brothers, and family in years, so the presence of a man in their home is quite alarming.
Martha performs a quick, somewhat haphazard surgery on his leg and it is decided he can stay till he heals. At first they were going to tie a blue bandana around the gate to signal that they had a Yankee in their house, but for some reason they decide not to send him away. His presence stirs in everyone different emotions, for the young girls, perhaps a fatherly figure, for (Alicia) Elle Fanning, the older teenager of the group, he represents the sexuality that young hormonal women desire, and for Edwina, he seems the most important, as he could be her way out of the house. As a lover and maybe even a husband, if the opportunity arose. Alicia twirls her hair and looks at him longingly, while Edwina adorns herself with earrings and broches to show herself off. All the women vie for his attention and approval despite the fact that just a few days ago they wanted him out of their premises.
In one of the scenes, Martha hand washes McBurney’s body and slowly wipes him down. The feeling of constraint and desire can be felt, yet Coppola doesn’t show us all, she leaves us hanging with the image and the feeling Martha must have felt considering she hadn’t felt a male body in years. That sense of wanting yet holding back is shown delicately, and in essence it is what makes this film so captivating and interesting.
What happens from here is enthralling and intense. Tension flies high and the women become emblazoned and bolder in each scene, yet at the same time completely proper and dignified like true Southern ladies.
The movie was beautifully shot by cinematographer Phillipe Le Sourd. Each scene was visually stunning, with soft lighting coming in by candlelight. This helped to create an atmosphere that seemed both haunting and thrilling to watch.
All of the actresses in the film played beautifully against one another. While Fanning stood as a real scene-stealer, her hormonal desires and the broodiness she felt being stuck in the big house could be felt. Dunst also delivered and gave a performance that was restrained and innocent, yet we could always feel that there was something deeper going on inside Edwina.
Kidman was great as the head mistress; she was in charge and let it be known that she didn’t need any kind of male figure to keep her going. In a sense she represented all of the women that were left behind in that era. They had no choice but to pick up the pieces and make do with the life they were left with, abandoned by family and male figures. Ferrell was probably the best character, he had so much duality to him, and that is what kept us on the edge of our seats. At times he was kind and passive, and at other times filled with rage and fury at his plot in life.
I highly recommend going out and seeing this movie. It does not have robots, mutants, or death defying action scenes; instead it gives audiences something a little more meaningful and interesting to sink their teeth into this summer.
Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Written by: Sofia Coppola, adapted from the novel by Thomas Cullinan
MPAA rating: R
Running time: 93 minutes