Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. For more information please visit www.festival-cannes.com/en or follow the Cannes Film Festival on Twitter.
Set in Virginia three years into the Civil War in 1864, Sofia Coppola’s latest film The Beguiled is an adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel of the same name from 1961 and a remake of Don Siegel’s film from 1971. Compared to its predecessor, Coppola’s take on the story is told from a female perspective.
The film opens with a young girl hopping and wandering around the foggy and swampy woods of Virgina. She is looking for mushrooms but instead stumbles upon a badly injured Union soldier and deserter, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell). After a brief conversation, Amy (Oona Laurence) is charmed and persuaded by him into taking him back to her boarding school to rest and recover. Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), the headmisstress of “Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies” is aware of the threat of hiding an enemy soldier but is conflicted since she is convinced that it is her moral responsibility to take him in until he is recovered. She decides to stitch him up and let him stay until he gets better, then he should be handed over to the Confederate soldiers.
John’s presence is more than just a threat to the remaining five young students, their teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and their headmistress. Since they have been isolated for years, they are bewildered but also excited to have a man around the house. They constantly compete for John’s attention and come up with reasons for him to stay as soon as he gets better. Charming as he is, the wounded soldier makes every single woman in the household feel special, which creates tension between them. With John’s arrival, the long suppressed sexual desires are awakened and especially Martha, Edwina and Alicia (Elle Fanning), the oldest of the teenage girls, feel attracted to him.
Martha is aware of the effect the Corporal has on her girls. She herself had a weak moment quite early on when she was taking care of John’s wounds. That particular scene, in which she is cleaning his dirty and bloody body after stitching him up, is full of longing gazes and sexual tension. The headmistress, who has lost her husband in the war, is lonely and starts to enjoy the new company. Soon, John, who had been locked up in the music room, is allowed to join the ladies’ dinner table and starts helping out with light gardening. The enemy doesn’t seem so bad after all – the war he was fighting in is actually not his war. He is an Irish immigrant and joined the “Yankees” upon his arrival in New York to receive 300$ and longs to head out West as soon as the war is over.
Edwina, who feels trapped in her current situation, realizes that John could be her way out of the boarding school and the South, after he blurts out that he loves her and wants to run away with her. She returns his affections but eventually Alicia (Elle Fanning), the most flirtatious and seductive student, is the one who ends up in bed with the soldier. The Beguiled then takes a much darker turn from here on out and John is no longer a tolerated guest.
Coppola’s competition entry is a straightforward thriller with wicked comedic elements. It develops slowly but steadily and remains quite subtle, even in its key scenes. The Beguiled is beautifully shot by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd. Mossy trees covered in fog and swamps surround the reverent mansion of the boarding school and occasional rays of light find their way through the thick forests while the interior is candle-lit. It all adds to the mysterious and menacing atmosphere of the film.
Coppola's competition entry is a straightforward thriller with wicked comedic elements.