The Beguiled (M). Director: Sofia Coppola. Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence. 94 minutes
American filmmaker Sofia Coppola critiques the vagaries of the female gaze and eviscerates a certain type of Western masculinity in this new drama based on Thomas P. Cullinan's 1966 novel of the same name. The novel was previously turned into a film in 1971 by Don Siegel starring his frequent collaborator, all-American hero Clint Eastwood. Coppola channels the eerie Southern Gothic overtones and 19th century period setting of both those works and transduces them with a riveting, thoroughly modern deconstruction of gender and power.
As the film begins, 12-year-old Amy (Laurence) is picking mushrooms in the woods, when she stumbles upon Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Farell), whose leg is badly injured. This is Virginia in the midst of the Civil War, enemy territory for John, but the kind-hearted girl nonetheless takes pity on him. Supporting him bodily, she leads him to the nearby girls school — all-but abandoned and housed in a white, sturdy-pillared plantation mansion — where she and the few remaining students live under the watchful eye of stern headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Kidman).
Despite initial reservations, Martha bows to Amy's appeals to Christian charity, and allows John to stay in the school as he recuperates. Here he becomes an object of fascination and more for the women inhabitants, particularly for buttoned-down teacher Edwina (Dunst), for Amy and for one of the older girls at the school, insouciant teenager Alicia (Fanning). From the moment of John's arrival, Farnsworth notes a change among her charges: they take more care with how they dress; their interactions with John are accompanied by blushing stares and giggles.
This is a deliberate subversion of typical, destructive Western tropes by Coppola, in which it is the male character who is objectified by the female gaze. In this she probes how this particular man either thrives under or is stymied by such objectification. John is more than aware of the sexual and romantic stirrings he has aroused among his new companions.
"As their gazes transform from admiration to fear and pity, it causes him to question his very masculinity, and he becomes dangerous."
Handsome and charming, he manipulates each woman according to how he judges her character: he is well-mannered and helpful to Martha; tender and understanding to Edwina; he responds to Alicia's flirtations, and tells Amy he likes her best.
But in his assumption that his objectification is empowering, he has utterly underestimated the emotional and psychic complexities of those doing the objectifying. When his manipulations take on an explicitly sexual intent, there are several grim (though darkly comic) turns of event that radically realign his perception of his place in the women's lives. His limitations exposed, he turns to fury and violence. As their gazes transform from admiration to fear and pity, it causes him to question his very masculinity, and he becomes dangerous. The tussle for power becomes deadly.
As this grim fable unfolds, Coppola's graceful touch as director allows the finely detailed performances of her cast to shine through, examining each distinctive character's strengths and frailties, their prejudices and hidden longings. At the same time Philippe Le Sourd's exquisitely composed cinematography brings a fairytale mien to the physical environment — the stately, echoing homestead; the grounds, tending toward scrappy, but lit by ethereal bands of sunlight — that is also pregnant with menace. The Beguiled is a small Civil War drama that resonates profoundly in our modern times.
Tim Kroenert is editor of Eureka Street.