Cannes review: The Beguiled (2017)

Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is compelling Southern Gothic, richly textured and deeply feminine.

Southern Discomfort

by Alexa Dalby

The Beguiled

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Civil War-era drama The Beguiled is Sofia Coppola’s reimagining of Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel, which also was the basis for the 1971 Clint Eastwood film of the same name. It’s a new interpretation of same story from female characters’ point of view this time, director Sofia Coppola says. During the Civil War, so many women and girls from different stages from their lives were cut off from what lives would have been like. They are alone and forced to fend for themselves and the power struggle between men and women is at the heart of the story.

Atmospheric opening shots of gnarled trees dripping with Spanish moss pan down to a little girl (Oona Laurence) picking mushrooms in the early morning, cannon fire in the distance when she suddenly comes across a wounded Yankee soldier (Colin Farrell). Out of Christian duty, she takes him back to the seminary for young ladies, where she lives in an imposing, colonnaded antebellum mansion, owned and run by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), where there are only five remaining pupils, the rest having fled because of the Civil War. They decide to tend his wounds and return him to health before handing him over to the Confederate forces. Miss Martha’s primary motivation is to protect her pupils, they have to survive – and still be Southern ladies.

Inevitably, a handsome man’s arrival in a house of women turns girls’ lives upside down. The house is ruled by female energy and Corporal McBurney is a provocation, a wolf among the sheep, and he provokes different responses from each of the repressed women and girls. But he’s a survivalist, an Irish mercenary not a Southerner, who took someone’s place for money, and treachery ensues as he plays sexual tension among the women, each of whom tries to strike up their unique relationship with him, in ways depending on their age. Miss Martha, primly genteel yet steely, and strangely reminiscent of Acorn Antiques‘ Miss Babs, confesses the strain of being brave. Miss Edwina, her fellow teacher, frustrated by her spinsterhood, sees him as an escape route. Alicia (Elle Fanning) is the bad girl with raging hormones, whose behaviour incites the final horror.

It’s the second movie co-starring Kidman and Farrell at Cannes, the other being The Killing of a Sacred Deer, where they were husband and wife. In The Beguiled, she calls for the anatomy book and takes a saw to him, in a scene that is darkly amusing. It’s a lovely moment when Miss Martha ends the scene and we have to wait and see what happens.

Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd creates beautifully composed scenes of flurries of pale, full skirts lit by soft candlelight. The dynamics of relationships around the dinner table are a delight. Most of the action is claustrophobically enclosed within the house, and it comes as a relief to sometimes see the sunlit woods outside. The final long shot of the women behind the barred gate of the estate is impressive. It’s a gripping film, beautiful and gruesome, but despite it’s powerful premise it ultimately seems somehow slight. Rarely for Cannes, this is a film you wish could have been longer.

Sofia Coppola won the Best Director prize for The Beguiled at the 70th Cannes Film Festival 2017.

The Beguiled is now showing in the Official Selection at the 70th Cannes Film Festival.

Join the discussion