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Sofia Coppola is a master of unresolved tension — one needs to look no further than Scarlett and Bill’s tryst in Lost in Translation, or the ragtag bunch of Hollywood thieves that feature in her last film The Bling Ring to understand this. This time round, she offers us a feast of sexual promise and repressed desire in The Beguiled, a film that is entrancing and iridescent, but ultimately fails to find foundation in its intended commentary on gender dynamics.
Based off a 1966 novel and pitched as a remake of a 1971 film of the same name, The Beguiled once again follows Coppola’s auteur tradition (with credits in directing, writing and producing). But unlike her predecessors, she remakes The Beguiled from the perspective of the residents of the Farnsworth School under the watchful eye of headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman). This shift in point of view makes for an extensively stronger and more intriguing narrative than the original.
Like a lovechild of Blake and Wordsworth, Coppola’s setting is a Romantic-era dream and as per usual, she delivers a feast for the eyes with her Dreamy™ aesthetic. Shot on film with extensive use of classic Hollywood soft focus, cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd presents an idyllic vision of a towering Southern manor, encased by wild flowers and an infinite cluster of trees. The 35mm look works in harmony with the film’s entrancing, slow-burning first half and then heightens the malicious connotations of the third act.
The cast is small – 7 women and 1 man. The plot essentially rests on this 7–1 dynamic and the behaviour of the film’s women around John ‘Yankee’ McBurney (Colin Farrell). To unafraid headmistress Martha, her second in command Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and defiant student Alicia (Elle Fanning), John is a beacon of forbidden love — or lust. Though the film has no ostensible protagonist, Kidman’s performance is nothing short of stellar, and cements her as a leading woman. She fleshes out Martha to incredible levels and propels the narrative forward with every blunt quip, juggling comedy, drama and slight gore, all while maintaining the depth of a character so carefully curated that her counterparts feel two-dimensional in comparison. (Author’s note: Kidman is virtually infallible and wildly underrated, and I suggest everyone grab a copy of 1995’s To Die For and prepare to have your earth balance restored by her performance. While The Beguiled isn’t shocking per se, she’ll still leave you floored and/or singing Ewan McGregor’s ‘Elephant Love Medley’ from Moulin Rouge. But I digress on the Kidman front.)
Coppola staple Dunst gives a sincere and moving performance in a role otherwise let down by an arc that suddenly elevates to melodramatic heights without justification (goes from 0–100, if you will). Fanning’s Alicia, meanwhile, suffers from the opposite problem — she’s such an archetypal ‘rebellious teen’ that there’s not much to work with, although Fanning still manages to bring nuance to a shallow character. The interaction of these characters with outsider Yankee gives the film a haunting sense: it’s uncomfortable in the most comfortable way. It projects itself as a Southern Gothic but acts more like it’s merely taken a few tenets of the gothic genre and set them in the South — though this is not necessarily a detriment, as the film itself feels genre-less, and even incorporates comedy at times, inciting too much laughter amongst the audience to be slapped into the ‘drama’ label.
For all its cinematic prowess, however, The Beguiled is unrealised in its attempt to discuss gender dynamics. Such political commentary is inherent in the trio of Edwina, Martha and John, but fleshing out this discourse takes a backseat to juggling five other characters. In some ways, this is to be expected — Coppola has cemented herself over and over again as a proponent of style over substance, but she’s talented enough to make the former damn good such that we forget about the woes of the latter, meaning The Beguiled is thoroughly enjoyable, and entirely mesmerising.
But hey, this is a film where the narrative virtually centres on a man and even then it can pass the Bechdel test. So perhaps Coppola is successful in her rebellion against gender tropes after all.