“You vengeful bitches!”
The Beguiled opens with a gentle, steadily creeping hum, as rows of towering live oak trees welcome us into the the South. Three years into the Civil War, the brutal fight rages on, yet the opening sequence of shots is nothing but calm and serene, clearly with something bubbling under its pristine surface. We follow a young girl as she cheerfully forages for plants in the wilderness, minding her own business and singing to herself until she stumbles upon a wounded Union soldier resting against a tree. Her kindness serves the soldier well as she helps him on his feet, leading him as he limps to the boarding school in which she lives, hoping to provide him with the help that he needs before he returns to battle. It’s when he arrives at the house, meeting the house full of young girls and women, that things slowly, but surely go from sweet to sour. Easily one of her best films to date, Sofia Coppola returns in top form with an all-star cast, a simmering, atmospheric intensity, and dark humor that slices deliciously through the tension.
As the women take in John McBurney (Colin Farrell, sadly without his glorious The Lobster gut, though still perfectly cast), his arrival silently moves the women in different ways. “Seems like having the soldier being here is having an effect,” Headmaster Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman, delightfully vicious) declares, trying to keep her house in order as the gears in each of girls’ heads start turning. After all, three years into the war, it might be safe to say that none of these seven individuals have been in the presence of any men in quite some time.
Farnsworth, however, is less than keen on making McBurney himself feel too comfortable under her roof, eager to only fix his leg and get him out as soon as he’s able to get back on his own two feet. “I’m as blunt as I want to be,” she sternly warns the soldier, emphasizing that she’s absolutely not the type to fuck around, nor is she to be fucked with. However, her right hand woman, teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst, delightful as usual), while initially hesitant herself, eventually warms up quite a bit to his presence, dangerously falling prey to his gentlemanly charm.
Giggling like the pack of schoolgirls that they are, the five young ones find themselves similarly electrified by McBurney’s magnetizing presence. While he develops a paternal relationship with Anna (Oona Laurence, a star in the making), the one who found him in the forest and took him in, the most rebellious and oldest of the bunch, Alicia (Elle Fanning, who acts like a veteran at this point), plays coy with the older man, her burgeoning teenage sexuality coming into play.
Bedridden and at the mercy of the women, however, McBurney knows exactly what to say and how to act as he bonds with each of them, eventually winning over Farnsworth herself. While not everybody in the house is exactly sold on his looming presence, gaining Farnsworth’s approval grants him an extension to his stay. Over gorgeously shot candlelit dinners, he sits on the opposite end to Farnsworth and surrounded by girls endlessly doting on him, grinning from ear to ear from his presence. Aided by his own charm and wooing, they start to romanticize the very idea of him, all of them wrapped around his finger. Or so he thinks.
Coppola, all the while, has expertly injected subtleties to every scene, quietly feeding a gentle beast as McBurney ultimately realizes how gravely he has underestimated the group of women. (Don’t they all?) He’s made himself rather comfortable in the house, after all, as they serve his every want and need while he recovers. Ever the supposed gentleman, he attempts to convince the women how better off they would be with him around, asking to stay permanently while he takes on duties around the estate that “only a man can do.” With every insistence, he only forces himself closer to overplaying his hand, inevitably revealing to the women what he really is underneath all the charisma: he’s just like the rest of his fellow men. And boy, it sure ain’t pretty.
Throughout the lead-up to the film’s release, much has been discussed (and rightfully so) of Coppola’s erasure of the source material’s slave character. She herself has stated, “I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them. I was clear about my decision—because I want to be respectful to that history.” As someone who recently relived the much beloved Lost In Translation just after The Beguiled as part of Focus Features’ double feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival, I was swiftly reminded how painfully racist and ignorant that supposed “masterpiece” was to begin with. We’ve seen Coppola try to tackle (which I say generously) before, and personally, as an Asian female, I’d rather not see her try her hand at it again.
Nevertheless, The Beguiled is nothing short of a Southern gothic feast, showcasing Coppola at the height of her game. Matched with a haunting score by Phoenix – quite possibly their most restrained work yet – The Beguiled is dark, yet cleverly funny and directed with a nuanced, masterful touch, making for not only one of Coppola’s best, but also undoubtedly one of the most exciting releases of the year.