Cementing Sofia Coppola’s position as the second woman in history to win ‘Best Director’ at Cannes Film Festival, The Beguiled is a stunning exploration of repressed female sexuality against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Based on Thomas Cullinan’s novel of the same name, Coppola’s adaptation differs significantly from Don Siegel’s 1971 version by choosing to displace men as its subject in favour of highlighting its female characters’ actions/reactions. Restrained and tentative in its approach, The Beguiled is an enthralling depiction of female sensibility placed under the strains of jealousy and betrayal.
Steeped in the motifs of Christianity and the rigid principles of feminine sensibilities, The Beguiled carries Coppola’s fascination with analysing women within claustrophobic conditions; with an isolated all-girls boarding school in the Virginian countryside acting as a protective bubble from the distinctly male-orientated order of the outside world for its inhabitants. Continuing in this female-centric vein, Coppola’s adaptation strips back its characters and removes chunks of the source material – most notably its inclusion of black slave women, supposedly to focus the film more narrowly towards sexual politics (which was been met with understandable complaints of yet more Hollywood white-washing). In doing so, the film is allowed exude a raw sense of the sexuality that is, for the most part, hidden within itself: resulting in a palpably tense atmosphere as the power dynamics between the characters are placed under pressure.
It’s with the arrival of the injured Union Army corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) into Mrs Martha Farnsworth’s (Nicole Kidman) school that these dynamics begin to slide back-and-forth, with an almost constant juxtaposition between femininity and masculinity at play throughout. Whilst power oscillates primarily between McBurney and Farnsworth, the film’s introduction of multiple romantic
interests conquests for McBurney in the form of schoolteacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) and schoolgirl Alicia (Elle Fanning) begins a shift from struggles for authority into sexual power-play and manipulation.
The cinematography, courtesy of Philippe Le Sourd, is regimented and lingering in its gaze over the women; which serves to highlight the fetishised costumes and underpin the narrative with a tone that fits somewhere between stoic and smouldering. Shrouded in Spanish moss and morning mists, The Beguiled is certainly a film about the sexual repression of women during the Civil War era, but it’s even more so a film of dualities. From its basic gender dichotomy to its showcasing of traditionally ‘feminine’ tasks as multifaceted skills (cooking as creative and destructive, sewing as artful and healing, etc), Coppola manages to create a captivating atmosphere of palpable tension surrounding the ambiguities that lie within people’s actions/words, and what they actually mean.