Directed by Sofia Coppola
Sofia Coppola knows how to set a mood. Like some of her other melancholic stories, The Beguiled is a visual poem more than anything else. It’s actually one of the more plotted stories of any movie she’s done, but the narrative only orbits three distinct plot points, concerning the arrival, maiming and departure of a Union soldier in the civil war.
That soldier, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) finds himself badly wounded on the outskirts of a female boarding school with only seven inhabitants. Once found, he is brought in for recovery, but his stay blurs the line between imprisonment and house guest. He begins to bond with the women, though jealousy and lust begins to complicate matters, and after a particularly grizzly event, he finds himself very clearly imprisoned.
The latter half of the film concerns the fight for survival within the lavish home which had until then been a safe haven from the war taking place within hearing distance. Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), who runs the school, makes a decision which takes care of the looming threat, even if it seems that the threat has begun to subside. Then the film ends before you expect it to but right when it should.
The final shot of the film is incredibly erie, with the camera floating outside of the front gates, looking at the seven women in front of the school as if they are ghosts… or aliens… or something caged. It’s a striking image, and it adds a new reading to the action taken in the final act to get rid of McBurney. Though done for their own well-being, the decision becomes much more sinister. In the end the women are shown to be more of the image created in McBurney’s head than in reality. They are a representation of something, something intimidating, but I’m not yet quite sure what.
Sofia Coppola’s films are often sparse. Lost in Translation concerns the friendship between a man and a woman, each going through some kind of quiet, personal crisis in Tokyo. They are fish out of water in a large, vibrant city, but much of the story takes place within the bubble of their hotel. Similarly, Somewhere follows a character just as melancholic, holed up in a hotel in Los Angeles that he has lived in for far too long. Another film, Marie Antoinette, mostly takes place in the Palace of Versailles, but when you have access to the actual palace, how can you film anywhere else?
Anyways, Coppola’s movies, and her characters are very contemplative…
Most of the time they feel like people stuck in the eye of a storm. Their world is painfully calm, but the universe around them is busy, loud and chaotic. In The Beguiled this is flipped. Yes, there’s literally a civil war raging on around the large Virginian manor, but we never see the war. We see the effects of the war (McBurney’s leg wound) and a group of tired soldiers, and we even hear the war, but we never see the actual fighting.
Most of the exterior shots by the school are extremely calming. They are shots of nature, of gardening, of rays of sunshine slicing through large trees. At night you hear the crickets’ hum blending into some kind of peaceful ambience. This is made to be a comforting world, but the one inside is quite the opposite.
There is always something lurking under the surface with the women of this tiny boarding school. McBurney enters the situation as the ostensible threat, considering he’s an enemy soldier, and there are implications of the danger he might possess as the only man in a home full of women and children.
McBurney, though, is more transparent than anyone else in the film. Maybe it’s just because he has no choice but to depend on their willing kindness, but they treat him with such intense apprehension that we begin to wonder what they themselves might have in plan for him.
In the second half of the film, however, this relationship flips. As McBurney bonds with the women (just about all of whom, minus Miss Martha, are vying for his affection), the film takes on a much more peaceful tone. Still, we can see the storm coming. McBurney has insisted to a teacher, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) that he’s in love with her, and the oldest of the students, Alicia (Elle Fanning) surprises McBurney by kissing him in the middle of the night. Something will come of this, we can be sure.
One night, then, Edwina stumbles upon McBurney and Alicia in bed together. Angry, she pushes him, and McBurney stumbles down the staircase, unconscious. His repaired leg wound is obliterated (it’s gruesome), and as a result, Miss Martha believes she must amputate his leg.
We’re there to understand their thought process. We watch Miss Martha decide to amputate his leg, but when McBurney awakens he is livid, believing them to have severed his leg as spiteful punishment for his late night behavior.
Now, Miss Martha is remarkably stoic, so there’s always a degree to which we are reading into the motivations behind her actions. Still, if we were meant to side with McBurney’s paranoia, Coppola simply could have cut from the fall straight to when he wakes up without a leg. In that case we would understand his fear and anger, and the women would become much more mysterious and sinister. As it is, though, we’re made to believe that the amputation was done to save McBurney’s life.
Because he is so volatile, Miss Martha locks him in the upstairs bedroom. It’s not long before he convinces one of the younger girls to let him out, and suddenly he’s waving a gun around, intimidating the women like a horror movie monster. He even moves with the surprising swiftness of a horror movie bad guy.
Edwina, though, is ever the romantic. While the rest of the women in the house are hiding from McBurney’s violent whims, she goes upstairs, barricades the door and sleeps with him. While she’s gone, Miss Martha and the girls come up with a plan to pick poison mushrooms and feed them to McBurney.
That night at dinner, he attempts to make nice with them, but they allow him to eat the mushrooms anyways. He suffocates and dies, and in the final scene, the next morning, Edwina’s shock either washes away or is suppressed. Like before they remain a solid, silent unit. The girls sew a cloth around McBurney’s body, and Edwina takes time to comment on one girl’s technique, with no emotion and like nothing ever happened.
Up Next: Breaking Away (1979), Images (1972), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)