With The Beguiled, writer-director Sofia Coppola has created a movie undeniably rich in atmosphere but terribly clumsy in plotting. Depending on what you want from a Coppola movie, the latter may be forgivable. The 2017 Cannes International Film Festival jury certainly saw fit to bequeath her with the Best Director prize for this, her sixth feature film (unless you also count the TV special A Very Murray Christmas among her features).
It’s undeniable this filmmaker can handle atmosphere, as seen in the ironic appearance of a pair of Chucks in the bedroom of Marie Antoinette during one of the film’s many montages of gift-unwrapping to the sound of ‘80s New Wave music. There’s also the manner in which she turns the glamour of the Chateau Marmont into banality in Somewhere. With The Beguiled, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Thomas Cullinan, Coppola beautifully sets up the dynamic between a sparsely populated school for girls in Virginia during the Civil War and an injured Union soldier (Colin Farrell). During a stroll in the misty woods of tall trees overrun by Spanish moss with the sound of cannons in the distance sounding like an ominous thunder, young Amy (Oona Laurence) hums a melody as she gathers mushrooms. From behind a tree, Corporal McBurney, laid out against a tree’s trunk, puts a finger to his mouth to preempt the girl from screaming. The sense of Southern Gothic is immediately both mysterious and palatable.
Cinematically, Coppola creates a claustrophobic atmosphere in the school house using the confines of a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The shallow focus of the camera creates an intense gaze on proceedings, including the lingering bath the school’s mistress, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), performs on a passed out McBurney with a wet cloth that captures the tenderness of his flesh as she strokes it over and over. The lighting of the movie, which was shot on 35mm, is often gorgeous, be it in the shadowy mist of the outdoors or how the sun filters through the white curtains in the music room, where McBurney recovers behind a locked door.
All of it serves to highlight the tension between several of the ladies, including Miss Martha, her assistant Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and Alicia (Elle Fanning), a student who seems to be quite in a hurry to become a woman. All have distinctive perspectives on the man, who they are all both wary of but also attracted to. Miss Martha wants to mother and sleep with him, Edwina plays coy but could marry him and Alicia wants to fuck and kill him. The dynamic between the women and the only man in the house, who happens to be crippled but charming, is full of humorous insight that keeps giving, as the personalities of the women come to light while the multidimensional character of McBurney shifts to accommodate each of those women. It becomes a rather sinister comedy of relations until it falls off a rather rushed and clumsy cliff.
It’s fitting that the film’s score, credited to Coppola’s husband’s band Phoenix, feels unformed, hardly ever rising beyond a ghostly, high-pitched metallic drone. It’s as if even they didn’t know what to make of the mood of the film. Throwing things off in more apparent ways is the film’s harsh editing, which is particularly slapdash during the film’s finale. Where there should be frights and starts, there is only a sloppiness that compromises suspension of disbelief and character development. The latter being especially egregious, for it hollows out any investment in character created so carefully earlier in the movie. That some of that development is created with some great humor is especially disheartening.
Ever the stylish filmmaker when depicting ennui, Coppola loses something when she has to handle a distinct plot. The Beguiled seems belabored by it. It flails for its final minutes and no matter the consequences, it’s hard to care for these characters and their actions. Because of this, The Beguiled may be Coppola’s first truly flawed film.
The Beguiled runs 93 minutes and is rated R. It opens in South Florida at several multiplexes and indie art houses including the Coral Gables Art Cinema (which will have a special opening night happy hour) and O Cinema Wynwood on Friday, June 30. For screening details in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website. Focus Features invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.