FILM REVIEW: Sofia Coppola’s THE BEGUILED Uncomfortably Charms You
Sofia Coppola is undoubtedly considered one of the great artists of our American generation, be it for her singular aesthetic touch or her willingness to push the envelope and jar the audiences in subtle and unexpected ways. A small minority, myself included, offer a quiet dissent from the universal praise she receives, thinking her art overwrought and her exertions obvious. Her latest film, The Beguiled (a remake of 1971 movie based on a novel), recently won Best Director at Cannes (with Sofia becoming only the second woman to do so), and been received with mostly positive but not universal commendation.
The story is set in Virginia at the height of the Civil War, and begins when an injured Union mercenary played by Colin Farrell stumbles into a boarding school for women headed by Mistress Martha (a devilish and brilliant Nicole Kidman). Tending to the Colonel’s wounds, the women of the house, particularly the teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and a young teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning), fall for his obviously devious advances. Tensions rise and it soon becomes clear that this will not end well for everybody.
It only takes a few moments of perception to recognize that Coppola is an immensely talented director. She has a keen eye for beauty and trappings, and everything from the carpet to the ceiling radiates with meticulous art direction and design. She utilizes her lens and lighting with equal grace and to maximum effect, keeping the movie under a pall of fog and eerie smoke mostly throughout, sort of how she did in The Virgin Suicides and clearly evoking Jane Campion’s The Piano. Indeed, some elements of this artistry are magnificently subtle, such as the constant chirping of the birds you hear, which eventually convey a sense of nature but also of beautiful isolation. The outside, whether it be light or sound, is always creeping its way in to the house.
And she gets the most out of her already-talented cast, with each of the women in particular perfectly cast as the pious but disturbing headmistress (Kidman), the desperately pathetic aging woman (Dunst), and the coquettish and aloof sexually repressed teenager (Fanning). Farrell is perhaps a bit out of his league, but at least he acquits himself decently when the script requires him to be debonair, even if not so when it necessitates a different range of emotion.
But my problem with The Beguiled is, as it is for many Coppola films, that Sofia really seems to be trying hard to show off her artistry while simultaneously striving to hide it. The first hour or so of the otherwise crisp 97 minutes feels at times disjointed, with the relationship between the Colonel and the women progressing somewhat illogically and absurdly. You realize later that Coppola is going for the extreme and aiming for the ridiculous without overtly saying so—and she will elicit laughter from you, particularly in some closing climatic scenes. But it’s hard to square, at times, this painfully obvious “light” touch with the darker, deeper themes, with the moments of disturbance that she’s also plainly aiming for. And, as much as she tries to hide that she perceives the entire situation to be ridiculous, she can’t help but go overboard.
Moreover, The Beguiled is, at its core, a film about female empowerment in unexpected ways. The last few sequences reach those heights, but the journey to get there may have poisoned the well on the entire thing. No one can seriously deny that Coppola’s films are mesmerizing in different ways, even if her characters’ motivations, while relatable, are sometimes projected bizarrely. You will be enticed into the world of the tightly-wound women of The Beguiled, what with their religiosity, their sheer hypocrisy, the melodic singing, and even their darker instincts.
But whether you will be completely charmed, mesmerized, or enthralled, like the women of the film were, may depend on your tolerance for discernable manipulations to begin with.
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