THE BEGUILED Shows Coppola Back in Top Form

The recent Cannes winner offers up one of the year’s strongest and most involving films.

After failing to uncover any depth within the real-life shallowness of the extremely mediocre, and frankly annoying, The Bling Ring, the genius of Sofia Coppola has returned in full force with The Beguiled. The Oscar-winning writer/director reinterprets Thomas Cullinan’s literary work from a haunting novel into a sumptuous dramatic thriller with all its conflicting characters and captivating beauty. Featuring moments which portray shocking acts in quiet and poetic ways, Coppola has crafted her most stunning and hypnotic offering since 1999’s The Virgin Suicides. The film will surely wow arthouse audiences enough to make a profit while reinforcing the director’s standing as one of the finest directors of her generation.

Taking place on a southern plantation during the middle of the civil war, The Beguiled opens on young Amy (Oona Laurence), who is out gathering mushrooms when she discovers the wounded yankee Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) lying by a tree. Deciding to do the right thing, Amy brings John back to the all-girls school she lives in headed by Martha (Nicole Kidman) and Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). It is decided by Martha that John will stay until he recovers from his injuries. However, his visit stirs up various emotions, from intense disapproval by the deeply southern Jane (Angourie Rice) to strong curiosity from the bewitching Alicia (Elle Fanning), all of which lead to the most dire of consequences.

Because this is a Sofia Coppola film, The Beguiled is heavy in terms of visual style. Literally every shot within the film feels like a painting by Renoir that has been brought to glorious life. With a budget of only $10 million, The Beguiled carries with it a flair and a love for both the period it was set in as well as its rural surroundings. The Civil War era furniture and costumes are breathtaking while Coppola captures the house, farm and surrounding forests with a mixture of beautiful elegance and despair. Likewise, the lack of music throughout The Beguiled not only adds to the moody atmosphere of the piece but brings to the surface an undeniable sense of foreboding in every scene. There’s a definite gothic feel to The Beguiled not only in the careful choice of lighting (at times limiting its actors to the glow of candles), but in the hopelessness felt by its characters, with each person in the film clinging to a hope of a life that they feel may never come.

The Beguiled purely exists in its own world, with all its characters shut off from anything on the outside. Apart from each other, everyone here is left to their own devices of prejudices, fears, and desires. Yes, the film is a thriller with enough turns within its seemingly simple plot to make it so. However, intentional or not, The Beguiled manages to make a stark comment about the time it’s set in, the war taking place during it, and how it has touched each character in some way. Coppola’s skill here is in focusing on the personal rather than the political by showing how the fighting and killing have transformed everyone, regardless of whether or not they’ve stepped onto a battlefield. One would assume the film to be about women fighting the threat of man, yet there are no clear cut heroes and villains in The Beguiled. These are characters who are all driven by their desires and fears, using and turning on one another, at first imperceptibly and then almost instantly for their own personal motives.

Coppola continues her talent for casting here, taking actors whom most audiences feel as if they’ve already seen the bulk of their range and exposing hidden layers within their proven talents. As the only male actor in the film, Farrell is given his best role in years, making John’s true motives a mystery while gloriously bringing out his rage by the film’s end. Dunst also shines like never before. Her fourth outing with Coppola is her most successful as she soars playing a young woman who has let her dreams fall by the wayside for a life she has forced herself to be content with. Fanning’s Alicia could be seen as one-sided if the young actress didn’t skillfully bring out her curiosity spurned on by the character’s entrance into womanhood. Laurence and Rice each have their respective moments showing the war’s ability to transform youth. It’s Kidman, though, who makes everyone stop and take notice. Every scene featuring the Oscar-winner features a mix of unwavering determination masking a deep coldness waiting to be unleashed. It is hands down some of the best work she’s done in quite some time.

More than being just a memorable moniker for the film, the title poses a question to its audience: Who IS the beguiled of the film? One can make a case that the label fits each of the film’s four central characters and the feelings that their coming together stirs up. While Edwina is smitten by John and the prospect of being able to have a life she thought had passed her by, for Martha, the visitor eventually represents a chance to recapture the feeling of possibly being desired. Meanwhile, the appearance of John further ushers Alicia into the throes of womanhood, strengthening her sexual desires and all that they entail. For John himself, the women represent a means to an end at first until he finds himself genuinely mesmerized by each one on a different level. At the risk of sounding pretentious, maybe it’s us, the audience who are the most beguiled, not just by the gorgeous job Coppola has done here on a technical level, but by how she has presented a complex and fascinating portrait of the grayness of humanity; saying so much by doing so little.

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