A re-imagining of Don Siegel’s 1971 classic through the reversal of gender perspective, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled delivers a chilling retelling of the blistering collision of the sexes through the female persona in a period thriller that’s so reserved, so quiet, but so powerfully effective.
The Beguiled is set a couple of years into the Civil War. Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded soldier, has lost his way in the woods of Virginia, and is later found by Amy (Oona Laurence). Through the compassionate spirit of a southern Christian, she brings him to their home to be nursed until he recovers. A series of beguiling circumstances are ahead of them.
The magic of The Beguiled is due to Coppola’s ability to create tension utilizing the claustrophobic environment of the setting and women’s reserved sexuality of that era. Watching the film is like waiting for a kettle to scream and boil, flooding the environment as the characters, one by one, breaks free for air. That tension is as tight as a closed fist, but extremely, almost ridiculously subtle and quiet. It takes a director’s brilliance to create a potential energy that’s so meek and tranquil yet deliver something passionate and burning.
That art direction engages a conversation with the characters’ emotions, speaking to the environment and the atmosphere that the film stirs. Note that this is pre-war era where everyone’s famished, and nothing is everything; dreams and hopes are gone and everyone will start to create a world of their own in the confinement of their homes for safety. The dim interiors of the houses, almost lightless at times with nothing but candle lights and small whispers of sunshine behind the curtains, represent that dark period of history where people cave in like mice and isolate themselves for survival. When the camera pans outdoors (Coppola loves sunset shots), it speaks to the endless hopes and opportunities that the isolated characters hope for. The contrast of their indoor alienation to the perfectly lit outdoor world reiterates that seclusion, giving rationale to the psychological state the female characters are in. These women stand by their windows, looking into the light in despair and hopelessness; some use binoculars to seek what’s outside of their homes. A particular scene where Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) asks Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), “what is it that you want?”, she then answers “to be taken far away from here.” Coppola manipulates the atmosphere of their environment to serve as the subconscious of the characters.
It is also interesting to note how each female character represents a woman in a specific period of her life, which plays a vital part in creating the intentions of the characters. These intentions serve as the movement of the story, and how feminism is represented on different ages and different head spaces. Martha (Nicole Kidman) is the headmistress; the oldest — her character plays the rational one, who, at her age, has already acquired lifelong wisdom to resist what needs to be resisted, and to lead what needs to be led. Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) is a woman in her mid-30s — her character is the epitome of a woman's phase of ambiguity and crisis, full of frustrations of not being able to fulfill her aspirations. This age is crucial, as it represents the phase of approaching 40, where everything feels like it needs to be in place, otherwise it's the end of the world — exactly why Edwina has been the one who has always given the benefit of the doubt and has taken risks in the hopes of changing her life. Alicia (Elle Fanning) represents the age of curiosity — young adulthood, so to speak. She's curious, rebellious, and has always been the little minx who is the Eve to the apple of Eden. The little girls — Jane, Amy, Emily and Marie — represent innocence. Innocence is the trait that gives access to easy manipulation; which is why, through Amy, John has reached the home of these women.
Conflict has been created when the disruption of masculine dominance was instilled in the narrative; John's leg amputation, as done by Martha, represents emasculation. This particular part of the narrative is a commentary on how egotistical the sex could be, especially when it's the opposite sex who has created that disruption. As John has said in this part of the film, "I don't even feel like a man anymore", hence his outbursts. Coppola's narrative suggests how women's intentions are oftentimes gets lost in translation, and men's ego, by nature, are defined by their physical capability. The women's intention was to save his life and stray him from further bleeding; John's interpretation was him being controlled over. Men are, physiologically and generally speaking, stronger than women, and without that physical strength, men tend to be threatened. The film thematically incorporates emasculation as a form of feminism. It is yet again done by the end of the film, where the women took over the physical strength of John, to further negate his sexual dominance, not for egotistical purposes, but for survival.
Sofia Coppola has yet again delivered a contemporary piece that's visually stunning; shot with absolute precision, as every frame is intended with a purpose; grandiose costume design of period pieces that elaborate both restraint and liberalism of women in that era; a cast ensemble who complements each other with utter specificity; and a direction that brings forth a brave gender reversal retelling of an already controversial subject. Coppola knows her purpose, and she sticks by that without screaming feminist movement — everything she did has been very silent and smooth, beguiling the audience for an experience profuse of intellect and clear intentions.
5 out of 5 stars