Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled (2017) is a twisted fairytale of power, repressed sexuality, and violence during the American Civil War. Based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan and a loose remake of the Don Siegel’s The Beguiled (1971), Coppola tackles the story from a woman’s perspective and imbues it with a sly feminine humor and style.
It opens with a young girl leisurely hunting for mushrooms in the woods where only small shafts of light manage to penetrate the damp oak forest, foreshadowing the film’s dark tone. Stumbling upon Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded Union soldier, she rescues him by bringing him to the secluded, iron-gated, lace-and-ribbons world of her Southern girls boarding school.
Corporal McBurney’s appearance immediately becomes the focus of Headmistress Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), the teacher, Miss Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst), and five coming-of-age school girls, as they compete for and lust after his affection and friendship. The film captures a repressed Miss Farnsworth, in her high-buttoned white cotton blouse, while giving the unconscious corporal a sponge bath. In the process, she loses her composure and gets agitated by desire. To calm down, Miss Farnsworth takes a deep breath and rinses her face, but upon seeing her reflection in the mirror, starts to primp her hair.
It’s the humorous irony in this scene and throughout the film that makes The Beguiled a uniquely pleasurable and often surprising experience. It’s a beautifully shot period piece with detailed close-ups that reveal character and context. Formal tableaux of the girls’ sewing circle or musical performances visually heighten the contrast between the seemingly perfect social order of the school and brewing darkness underneath.
And who is beguiled? The women and girls, the corporal, or the audience? Despite the corporal’s initial physical immobility, surprisingly, it’s the women and girls who are vulnerable. The corporal’s deceptive flirtations cause relationships and routines to unravel. However, as the plot thickens with desire and scandal, there’s an unexpected power shift. The women and girls summon their intelligence and wit to unite, and the story takes on a humorously violent and unpredictable return towards Southern boarding school ‘normalcy.’