In “The Beguiled,” Sofia Coppola continues her observational work on American youth

Sofia Coppola, like John Hughes or Gus Van Zandt before her, is our foremost chronicler of American youthfulness. Plenty of other extraordinary films have captured experiences or asked questions about what youth means in American culture, but few have done so as consistently as Coppola. It began in The Virgin Suicides and continues in her newest film, The Beguiled.

The Beguiled is a paced, astutely shot portrait of female youth set against the waning years of the Civil War in Confederate Virginia. It is a re-adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel of the same name, adapted previously into a Clint Eastwood vehicle in 1971. That version adds several more salacious details to the story, and, as it was directed by Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dirty Harry), is built on different concerns than Coppola’s adaptation. Siegel once remarked that it was essentially about the “basic desire of women to castrate men.” That could be interpreted a few different ways, but Coppola’s Beguiled seems to focus more on the way men use women, and collective womanhood’s response to that. Her version, while acting as a thoughtful, at times darkly funny, drama, is a psychological puzzle in the way too few chamber-like films manage to be.

Starring is a captivating trio of women. Nicole Kidman plays the head of a ladies seminary school, Miss Martha; Kirsten Dunst plays Edwina, the school’s teacher; Elle Fanning plays Alicia, an older student of the school. These three are seduced and coyly battle over the affections of Cpl John McBurney, an Irish mercenary-soldier for the Union Army whom, presumably, the youngest student Amy (Oona Laurence) at the school discovers injured in the woods. Most of the other students and teachers have left the school in the midst of the war, and no other men live on the grounds. As is revealed as well in an almost offhand comment, all of the slaves at the school have left, presumably escaped. (This differs from Siegel’s version, in which there is a female slave present McBurney also woos.)

This simplification of story, while much discussed, lends the film a narrower focus, and most importantly allows Coppola to examine youthful femininity, how it lasts and is lost. Each of the women, from Miss Martha to Amy, fall under the same spell of McBurney, played with requisite sly charm by Colin Farrell. His attractiveness calls out to them, notably Edwina (who is nearest in exact age to McBurney), and who persists in desire for him as the story continued on. This is complicated by both Martha and Alicia.

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If you’ve known a man ever, it shouldn’t be a surprise who the Corporal sneaks with in the middle of the night. His choosing of the youngest object of his charm plants a seed of paranoia for the rest of his time at the school as to why the other, older women do what they do to him. Yet at no point does Coppola directly, nor do I indirectly believe, that the Martha or Edwina commit their respective acts because McBurney first calls on Alicia in the middle of the night. Nor does she present McBurney as a predator, though Farrell seems to play him as one at times. He’ll often turn his head and smile as he compliments or befriends the women, but Coppola presents these actions the same way each time, each as romantic or creepy as the last, to show that to McBurney, they may all mean nothing. Are each of these women a means to an end in a devastating war he hopes to escape from, or is he actually charmed by someone there, as he claims?

The women don’t face this conundrum. Their actions to protect and heal McBurney stems from their apparent Christian charity (a puzzling concept in the Confederacy, to be sure, but spoken nonetheless). It is also, of course, spurned on by McBurney’s attractiveness and each woman’s own bout of loneliness. Miss Martha is a widower from the war. Edwina is a daughter sent away who yearns to leave. Alice is a young woman in the throes of young adulthood and all that comes with it. Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd capture the women in many inserts of their daily life, accentuating the lonely predicament they find themselves in as daughters of a crumbling Confederacy. But they also capture the optimism along with the monotony of these women, their youthful protections in the face of their dying Cause, and whether it could outlast it.

Wild Mushrooms:

* The whitewashing controversy that sparked upon the films release concerned not just the removal of the slave character from the original adaptation, but also Edwina, who in the novel is a biracial instructor at the school. For Coppola, it has a choice to not brush over a topic lightly that demands more reckoning, nor to present a biracial female character in that way for no discernible reason to her story: “young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African American character I would want to show them.” A much better exploration of this can be found here and here.

* Having not seen the trailer before, but reading of the original novel, I expected the more salacious details to appear. That they did not I was thankful for, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. Coppola’s last film, The Bling Ring, was also quietly observational, and though it dealt with more selfish people, captured a similar question of youthful desire, but without many over-the-top moments.

* I am a fan of Kirsten Dunst, and so it’s always to nice to see her shine in a Coppola work (the two notably worked together before in The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette.)

* I was also surprised to hear Farrell’s natural Irish accent at first, thinking he was slipping into it on accident maybe. But it’s an interesting choice to have him be a non-native Yankee.

 

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