This gothic drama, with touches of black humour, is based loosely on a 1966 novel, “The Beguiled” written by Thomas P. Cullinan. The film won Best Director Award for Sofia Coppola at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, and tells the story of sheltered young women at a Southern Boarding School during the American Civil War. It is a remake of a film of the same name and based on the same book, but directed very differently (by Don Siegel), that was released in 1971.
In the US state of Virginia,1864, five young women are sheltered from the outside world in Miss Martha Farnsworth’s “Seminary for Young Ladies”. The girls practice embroidery and good French grammar under the watchful gaze of the head Mistress, while the sounds of gunfire reverberate around them. Their world is hidden away from the influence of men. One of the school’s girls (Oona Laurence) ventures out to collect mushrooms in the woods and comes across a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), who deserted his regiment. She helps to bring him back. He is handsome, flirtatious, and seductive.
The film captures superbly the dynamic consequences of women living in an emotionally isolated, cloistered environment where any sexual desire is expected to be kept hidden. Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) wants to protect her charges from any influence from the outside world, and she agrees reluctantly to accept the wounded soldier into their midst – for her, and her charges, it is the Christian thing to do. The soldier creates sexual tension everywhere, from the formidable Miss Martha down to young, precocious Alicia (Elle Fanning), and the girls’ adult teacher, Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst). The Corporal is incorporated differently into the fantasy of each of the women, as he sets out to charm them. The person most affected is Edwina. With a sad past, she responds strongly to the promise of affection and love offered by the young soldier. However, revenge strikes when the Corporal is caught behaving badly, and the film asks us then to examine the puritanical and unforgiving doctrine that terrible punishment is to be reserved for those considered most deserving of it.
Coppola has directed and coproduced a poetic female-remake of Cullinan’s original novel. The battle of this film is not on the plains of Southern USA, but between the sexes. Viewers are beguiled, or misled, by a male seducing a group of females – or are we beguiled by women manipulating a man? On its surface, Christian-inspired humanity takes place, but underneath the veneer, male and female desires are desperate for expression. The film becomes a tale of repressed sexuality and deceitful happenings that gathers force under Coppola’s expert direction. Coppola gives an old story new life, and she is a Director that never lets her film lose control.
The film is crafted masterfully, and is directed with escalating tension. It is impressively acted, particularly by Kirsten Dunst as Edwina, and Nicole Kidman as Martha, the school’s Headmistress. The movie is beautifully photographed. Haunting imagery of the house, the woods surrounding it, and the fog, that envelops them both, contrasts with repressed happenings; and the film’s scenes are immaculately lit. This is very much a film from a women’s point of view that Coppola opens up provocatively to the viewer for critical scrutiny.
The film is a psycho-sexual thriller. It depicts a group of women with power, who compete with each other purposively to get what they want, and the film has very little to say in defence of the concept of guiless women. In the film, Coppola attacks normal notions of feminine virtue among the advantaged, and uses male attraction to do so. This original remake deserves Cannes’ “Best Director” award – and it is only the second one made to a woman in the Festival’s 71-year history.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting