‘The Beguiled’ is a Southern suspense story told with perspective and precision

By Dan Cava

July 5, 2017

I wouldn’t blame audiences for not knowing what to expect from The Beguiled. In my hometown of Charlotte, The Beguiled has been placed in two of the smaller theaters in town, where all of the arty stuff tends to land. The trailers present it as something like a gothic horror movie, with a bloodied Nicole Kidman ominously asking for chloroform and a saw. The movie’s posters are covered with curly pink cursive and women in stiff dresses, so maybe it’s a chick flick, like Steel Magnolias during the Civil War or something? The answer is none of the above or, rather, only a little of each.

At its core, The Beguiled is a straightforward suspense movie, the kind that Hitchcock might have cooked up if he’d been born in Georgia. A houseful of war-abandoned Southern women take in a wounded Union soldier and many tensions ensue. All of the ingredients above– the sharp objects, the arthouse atmosphere, the perceptive inter-female dynamics– rest atop that basic construct. Director Sofia Coppola won Best Director at Cannes this year (sadly, only the second woman to do so), and I suspect she was awarded because she so expertly decorates her story with ever losing sight of it.

Nicole Kidman as Miss Martha Farnsworth. Courtesy of Focus Features

Coppola shoots The Beguiled with masterful economy and intention. She has a marvelous eye for composition and positions her camera and actors for very precise dramatic results. Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd use a 4:3 aspect ratio (the more square-shaped frame of older movies) to suggest a sense of antiquity, and the combination of 35mm film, hazy lenses, and natural lighting blanket in the movie in a sensuous, sun-soaked mist. (The visual style is not unlike that of The Assassin, another recent Cannes winner for the same category. The French must like this kind of thing.)

With all of this craftsmanship at her fingertips, the most enriching part of Coppola’s approach is her purposeful implementation of female perspective. Feminist film theorists have spoken often of a “male gaze” that, thanks to a male-dominated movie industry, seems to drive much of Hollywood storytelling. (For a notorious example, see Michael Bay’s introduction of Megan Fox in Transformers, and also all of his work.) Of course, movies directed by women don’t automatically feature a gendered approach (see Zero Dark Dark and even Wonder Woman). But for the sake of her story, Coppola infuses her film with female heterosexual desire, and The Beguiled shows how effective “gaze” can be as a tool in the right hands.

Colin Farrell as Corporal John McBurney and Kirsten Dunst as Edwina Morrow. Courtesy of Focus Features

Coppola tells us not just what to watch but how to see it. At times, Coppola’s camera seems to not merely be pointing at the helpless and handsome Colin Farrell but admiring him, indeed gazing upon him. We don’t just watch Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst; we participate in their feelings, thoughts, and desires. In one scene, the household of women groups around a piano while Farrell listens from across the room. As the song plays out, the entire emotional content of the moment is revealed entirely through a series of glances. Every look is precisely timed to reveal each character’s motivation and to preserve the logic of who-sees-who-looking-at-who. It’s a brilliant feat of distilled storytelling, where a lot happens while not much happens.

On that note…I can accept the charge that The Beguiled is “slow.” I’d say “patient, painterly, and purposeful,” but, you know, tomayto tomahto. Sometimes narrative art is not best served by speed but by depth. Sometimes you need to let the bomb tick for a little while. The Beguiled gives us a chance to be beguiled, to notice subtle shifts in mood, to feel the static of an accidental touch, to hear the cannons booming in the distance. The spell breaks once or twice when Coppola repeats an emotional beat or lets a shot linger an instant too long, but otherwise virtually everything in the movie is in its place. The Beguiled is a pretty tight ninety-four minutes.

Courtesy of Focus Features

As usual, Coppola peoples her film perfectly. She seems to really get each of one of her actors, and they are all cast toward their latent strengths: Nicole Kidman’s beautiful austerity, Kirsten Dunst’s aloof vulnerability, Elle Fanning’s nubile restlessness, and Colin Farrell’s stormy masculinity. The performances give us another reason to appreciate Coppola’s pacing: the chance to watch the actors’ behavior beyond just running and screaming.

There has been some discussion of “whitewashing” in Coppola’s adaptation, because she omits a black slave character from the original novel. I found the controversy to be misguided, a misread of the film Coppola actually made, but still instructive. For those interested, my only addition to the conversation would be a gentle request to watch the film first. It’s really worth seeing.

Elle Fanning as Alicia. Courtesy of Focus Features

The Beguiled is one of those stories whose mythic simplicity allows it be about a bunch of things at once, if only the director will allow it to remain simple. Sofia Coppola is the woman for the job. Matter-of-fact yet mysterious, tense and layered, beautiful and boldly feminine, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is one 2017’s best movies.

Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

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