Friday, June 30, 2017

Brief thoughts on The Beguiled.

A lonely, but idyllic all girl's school sits within the woods of Virginia during the Civil War. A student of this school comes across the badly injured John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Union soldier that the students and teachers take in until his injuries are healed. The location seems tranquil and unassuming, but soon that surface reveals a web of seduction, infighting, and cruelty as the occupants spend more time with their unlikely guest. For all these reasons and more, Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled seems destined to be among the most beautifully twisted films of the year.

When first we catch sight of Miss Farnsworth's Seminary for Young Girls (led by Nicole Kidman's titular headmaster), it isn't hard to see the charms of the location and the people who live there. It's a place built upon unity, the value of knowledge, and even the enjoyment of a simple life outside the cruel clutches of the ongoing war. Everything appears so innocent, the students very gossipy, yet very sweet and sincere in their actions and conversations with one another. It seems like the type of simple life that John has always wanted, impacting and imparting knowledge on the girls just as much as they give to him, and even earning the affections of teacher Edwina (Coppola muse Kirsten Dunst).

In fact, one could say that this place feels too perfect, and when this group of the seven women and their charming guest grow to know each other better, it isn't very long until that beguilement slowly fades away and reveals those truths that were always behind those intentions. John's stay has triggered a varied set of reactions within each of the inhabitants, ranging from deep-rooted contempt (Jane, in particular, hating the "bluebelly" cause), but also of great admiration, in both platonic and not-so-platonic ways. The Beguiled is heavily themed around those topics of repressed desire bubbling to the surface, showcased particularly in Edwina's desire for a married life outside this school and away from the war literally raging on just outside, and eldest student Alicia (Elle Fanning) blossoming in her sexuality, that all stir those very unnerving feelings in the viewer as those seductive webs keep on spinning, especially since we're never really sure of the ultimate intentions.

But desire isn't the only sensation to be brought to the forefront, as tensions stack up so much that we see these glimpses of characters embracing the most brutal sides within themselves. For what could have played as a very black and white divide between clearly defined morals, Coppola leaves intentionally vague, always making us question if certain horrid actions are simply mistakes made by good people whose intentions are still in the right place, or if those charms are merely a mask for the true violent nature within a person, and these events have only revealed those dark sides sooner than later. Obviously, much can be made about the blatant elephant in the room, that being one man against seven women that seems to call a battle of the sexes, and the ultimate confusion and reluctance to take sides in that particular match-up, but Coppola is also quite smart in deconstructing even that, as infighting and deliberate cause of jealousy between the students and teachers suggest that once strong bonds have now become strained as this unlikely guest seems to break them apart.

Sofia Coppola's direction can also not be undersold, capturing the deceptively warm atmosphere with a lush quality, making fantastic use of Phillipe Le Sourd's lingering photographic eye, but particularly for the overall quality of her cast. Boasting the likes of Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning, Kirsten Dunst, Oona Laurence and Angourie Rice, Coppola's selection of talent is so strong that you spend your time analyzing the individual players asking "Who's the standout?" The whole lot is fantastic, although I perhaps find myself most drawn to Dunst. But furthermore, if this film ends on an anticlimactic note, it does so deliberately, and effectively. A beautiful match up of theme and imagery, I love how those final few moments bring those aforementioned themes of bonds to haunting new light, leaving the viewer to wonder if that same sense of kinship can ever truly be the same or last following that short, but crucial series of unfolding events, events in which seemingly loving people may have inadvertently shown their true colors. Simplistic in its approach, but incredibly layered in execution. Nothing less than can be expected of Mrs. Coppola.

**** / *****

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