This essay contains spoilers for the 2017 film The Beguiled.
I went into viewing Sofia Coppola’s film The Beguiled without having read its source novel, by Thomas P. Cullinan, or having viewed the 1971 film by Don Siegel. What had drawn me to the film initially was when I came across, months ago, a photo on the fuckyeahfilmdirectors tumblr that showed Elle Fanning and Kirsten Dunst on set for the film. Not knowing who the director or the film was, I was drawn to a) the obvious period costume attire but also b) the clear visual style, visible even in this candid behind the scenes shot. When I saw it was from an upcoming Sofia Coppola film I got even more excited, because I always enjoy — at least visually — each of her films I’ve seen. The Virgin Suicides was special to me from the beginning, I appreciated her take on Marie Antoinette, and The Bling Ring was a fun ride. But Coppola taking on a Civil War story? Here for it.
The film then went on to win Coppola the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival, only the second woman in history to claim the prize. I got even more excited. Most costume dramas play in my city at the smaller arthouse theatres, winding up here a few weeks or months after they’ve played elsewhere. But with this buzz, perhaps this film would come to the mainstream cinema here, and perhaps arriving the same time here as it would elsewhere. And indeed, when I went to see The Beguiled today, it was at the mainstream theatre, only slightly after it opened in larger cities. But between Coppola’s groundbreaking Cannes victory and me taking my seat, a lot of writing has come out about this film, focusing on a) Coppola’s decision to remove the only black character from the narrative and/or b) Coppola not having heard of the Bechdel test.
The movie has become a conversation as much as it is a film. And there are lots of great pieces out there exploring the racial, societal, and gender politics of the film and what it means to release something like this in 2017. This essay is not one of them. Not because those issues aren’t vital, but because others have discussed and will continue to discuss these aspects much more thoughtfully than I ever could, and also because what I left the theatre most thinking about was how The Beguiled moved me with its claustrophobic aspect ratio, its use of romantic costuming and lighting to play against type, the sense of helpless fury all of its female characters feel for finding themselves in this no-win situation, and what it all means for the film to conclude with the huge gate being locked yet again, the girls and women looking out from behind bars.
The film opens with Amy (Oona Laurence), one of the younger students, singing to herself as she picks mushrooms for dinner. The soundtrack at first sounds like cannons firing very nearby, but Amy doesn’t seen fazed at all, so I assumed it was just some inventive percussion on the soundtrack (entirely scored by the French band Phoenix). But as the film progressed, I realized retroactively that those were in fact cannons firing, that the battle lines are precariously close to the plantation home in which our protagonists exist, and Amy is not deterred from her mushroom-hunting because these sounds are so commonplace that they no longer disrupt her daily chores.
We learn from Amy’s talkative exposition that she is one of five students left behind at a finishing school, all other students have returned home for safety, and the slaves having already fled. The only adults they have are school teached Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), whose costuming and manner is more cosmopolitan than the others, and headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), a ferocious mother hen keeping her wards safe through what seems like sheer force of will. Amy is one of four tween-age girls along with the slightly older Alicia (Elle Fanning), dividing their time between the etiquette and language lessons that likely comprised their schooling pre-War, and new chores helping maintain the garden and land in the absence of any other staff.
The two women and give girls have clearly been living together for much longer than any of them could have imagined. We learn that Martha has lost a beau in the war, while Edwina has apparently cut herself off from the more cosmopolitan life she could have had, for reasons unknown. Jane (Angourie Rice) claims that she could return to her high-ranking family whenever she wants, but everyone knows it’s a lie. We get the sense that these seven characters have been living their own version of Groundhog Day for weeks or even months now. The film captures well the way that life continues to go on even in the face of great trauma and change; yes, there are men fighting and dying just beyond the woods, your country may be on the precipice of a new world order, and you could be invaded and robbed at any given moment. But in the here and now, French lessons and gardening chores are the only ways to stave off the boredom that’s unavoidable when you have no control over what’s to come next.
Coppola has made her name by filming extraordinary pretty films, and The Beguiled is filled with gorgeous shots that allow the damp greenery and sun-baked white house to feel at first like a paradise, and then like a kind of Hell. It is into this world that Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) finds himself convalescing from a battle wound. The group is torn at first as to whether they should help or abandon him, as his uniform plainly reminds them that he’s actively fighting against them in the war. Christian charity, and a collective thirst for something, anything to happen finds him being taken in as a sort of pet. Farrell, for his part, enlivens each of his early scenes with a twinkling charisma, somehow casting appropriately smouldery looks at each of his new housemates. He compliments Martha on her leadership and strength, Edwina on her beauty and sophistication, and the girls on each of their special gifts — music or cooking or kindness.
Along with McBurney, we find ourselves also beguiled by the sweetness and potential of these women and girls. He is quick to pitch in and help, when he can; we come to learn that he’s a mercenary, fighting this war not for ideological but for financial reasons. It also allows the women, who are technically his captors but more like his nurses, to continue accepting his ongoing presence in their lives. He’s not like the other Yankees, after all. At one point, Martha asks the girls what they think they may be able to learn from having McBurney around, and the consensus seems to be that they are all keen to learn more about the outside world. Martha reminds them that their lessons, French and sewing and so on, will also prepare them for that same outside world. Later, once Martha has warmed to him as well, she posits that he is a reminder to them all that their enemy is not a mass of evil, but a group of individuals, not all of whom are all that bad.
The first half, or perhaps two thirds, of the film feel like a hopeful dream. The girls giggle and dance, each filled with a new sense of purpose now that there’s a man around to impress. Edwina dusts off her fancier jewels and gowns, and even Martha gives in to McBurney’s charms a little. His presence changes something in the air, and at first it’s magical for everyone as they’re filled with hopes and imaginings of how this could all turn out. Sure, there’s a war going on just outside, but McBurney is so helpful in the garden, couldn’t he stay on as their caretaker? Does anyone have to know how he found his way there, or for which army he used to fight? And if he happened to wed either Martha or Edwina, well, it would would make even more sense for him to stick around. The energy that was at first sweet and hopeful turns dangerous the longer he stays, and when McBurney starts to think he may be sent away, his dangerous game only grows more bold.
Whether a fictional story or imagining this as a real-life situation, we all know it could never end happily for him. And so it a sudden, Gone Girl level mid-film plot twist, his captivity veers into Misery territory as he turns violently against the women and they come to realize what sort of monster they’ve allowed into their lives. Their own emotions have been locked up as tightly at the front gates or the music room in which McBurney was kept captive; each time a key is turned or a lock pulled open, it feels momentous. What he unleashed by entering this house was for each of its inhabitants, in her own way, to open a part of herself. Alicia, filled with ennui and impatience to get to be an adult, is the most obvious in this respect, as she is the only one to actively seduce their guest — only to walk back her actions when she senses he’s no longer a prize to be won. I appreciated that she fell back in line almost immediately when it became clear it was them versus him, though McBurney’s post-amputation tirades manages to alienate even his most steadfast supporter, little Amy.
There’s a scene in which Martha — another masterful turn by Kidman, making full use of her magical ability to project five different emotions at once — explains that she is as strong as the girls need her to be. In the chaotic world they’ve found themselves in, she knows that a strong leader is needed, and she’s prepared to be that for them. It’s a testament both to her power and to the others’ need to look up to someone that even Edwina is shown in the final moments to have also fallen back into line behind her. Edwina, who pulled on her most scandalous gown, who chose McBurney over the others even after he displayed his ugliest self to them; who knew he had betrayed her, that he’d been playing them all along, who still clung to the notion that she and he could have a happy life if they ran off together.
Coppola keeps a tight lid on the emotions portrayed throughout the film, other than McBurney’s series of outbursts and perhaps Martha showing frustration once or twice. After McBurney’s death, itself a plan by the film’s theretofore more innocuous girl, Miss Marie (Addison Riecke), the screen fades to black. The next we see of the house’s inhabitants, they’re putting their sewing skills to good use by stitching up the body bag containing the corpse of their former houseguest. Edwina, once more in a buttoned-up dress, pulls herself from a reverie to admonish them to be mindful of their stitches. The camera pulls back, and we see them all on the front porch, framed through the wrought iron bars of the front gate. They’re all seemingly docile again, emotions in check, just as the gate is locked. These are girls and women forever trapped behind windows and doors, only to find the terror and heartbreak that can occur when you’re set free. So they each choose to entrap themselves again, protecting each other from the mysteries of the outside world, at least for now.