On a hot southern morning, with the fog still making its way through the woods, a twelve-year-old girl hunts for mushrooms accompanied by the sound of cannon fire in the distance as the Civil War rages outside the wood. Soon she finds a hurt man hiding among the leaves and dirt at the base of a tree. Though he’s a Union soldier in these Confederate lands, his wound is severe and she does the only thing she can – takes him to her nearby seminary for aid. There, while passed out from pain, his fate is decided by seven women who, in turn, decide their own.
This is the basic premise for director Sofia Coppola’s (Bling Ring/Lost in Translation) latest film, The Beguilded, which is an adaptation from the 1966 Thomas Cullinan novel originally published under the name A Painted Devil. While the marketing would suggest that The Beguilded is a tightly wound sexual thriller, Coppola’s final product is a slow burn interpersonal drama whose atmospherics crackle with entropy as each double-tongued conversation leads everyone toward their inevitable conclusion. Coppola’s purposeful shifting of the story’s narrative perspective to the women invokes an examination of the feminine relationship with sex and power. If anything is made clear, woe to anyone that challenges the domain of the “fairer sex”.
Desire is delicious is in the seeking; in the push-pull tension before fulfilling the heart’s want. Here, Coppola plays with the power created by desire; power over others, as well as the power to incite action. This is initially set up at the start of The Beguiled by using the woods as the first image: sunlight pouring through the canopy of trees lining a road. Nature, we see, is the most powerful thing; a concept reinforced by the frequent scenes of the women working the garden as they attempt to clear it of rotting debris to make way for fresh fruits and vegetables. Nature desires the entropy process to create balance, which means that the characters are in constant battle with nature. In this regard, it’s not by accident that Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is found by Amy, the girl who nurtures, dying at the foot of a tree. He is toward the end of the entropy process, but is saved. From here, McBurney does everything he can to prevent returning to that state. Upon realizing that the women see themselves as saviors and see within him some kind of respite, he begins playing them, speaking to them as he knows each want to be regarded or valued. The older the woman, the more careful McBurney becomes, yet he continues to play this game for power. Likewise, each of the women seem comfortable giving up some of themselves to him in order to achieve what they want. Though the younger women offer up smaller gestures like Marie’s prayer book or Jane’s music, the most significant act of supplication is Miss Martha’s abdication of her place at the head of the dinner table. Though it could be suggested that this is merely Southern hospitality, by the time McBurney is offered a seat at the table, his happiness is what the women so obviously seek as they try to outdo each other for his approval. Never has an inquiry over the freshness and deliciousness of apple pie sounded so taundry until ownership of its parts is heard bouncing across the table as McBurney eats, a smile slowly spreading on his face. However, as the story continues, each of the women realize that desire is a poisoned fruit that reeks destruction upon all.
Desire in and off itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when desire manifests within an age of strict sexual repression that intersects with religion and isolation, it becomes a powder keg. For the seven women at Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Girls, McBurney represents an opportunity to exercise their desire, which simultaneously puts them in competition with each, while also working together to keep him at the seminary. This particularly fascinating notion makes watching these women engage with the silver-tongued, enigmatic McBurney a delight as they slowly reveal each of their varying degrees of desire. Keep in mind that in this case desire doesn’t necessarily mean anything sexual, and Coppola does an impressive job making this point. For Nicole Kidman’s headmistress Miss Martha Farnsworth, McBurney represents someone she can share the responsibility of her seminary for young girls. Someone who can lighten her load. For Kirsten Dunst’s young school teacher Edwina, McBurney symbolizes escape from a life grown mundane. For Elle Fanning’s seductive lolita Alicia, he is nothing more than a forbidden fruit borne out of rebellion. Oona Laurence’s Amy, the very girl who found McBurney in the woods, sees him as a wounded bird for whom she can care. Eventually, McBurney, the physical manifestation of their hearts’ desires, becomes twisted by anger and fear, transforming into the source of their pain.
The Beguilded may not be the sexual thriller suggested, but that doesn’t make it any less engaging or intriguing. The acting by all is superb, the narrative is tightly contained to serve a speedy story, and Coppola’s control of sound and sight to enhance perspective is sublime. By the end, The Beguilded reveals itself as a ticking time-bomb set into motion from the moment Amy finds McBurney. The lesson here: whomever began referring to women as “the fairer sex” clearly hasn’t been paying attention for they are a force of nature.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.