Sofia Coppola’s new film, The Beguiled, begins like a fairy tale. The intertitle, pink and evocative, announce the time as three years into the American Civil War, we are in Virginia. We see a young girl humming, traipsing through the woods to pick some mushrooms. It is both foreboding and mystical. This opening is not really what it’s all about, though. The Beguiled is about a small number of residents at Miss Martha’s school in Virginia three years into the war – two teachers, and five students. Their life of waiting is interrupted when one of the girls finds a bleeding Union Soldier in the woods. This new resident creates tension and then drama and then tragedy in the house.
The movie, a new adaptation of the novel A Painted Devil was previously adapted in 1971 – also called The Beguiled. This isn’t a war movie in the typical sense but the Civil War, its politics and its effects, are suffused through the entire film especially when it’s the centre focus. At key moments in the film the distant, but distinct, sound of drums signals the war and each time it comes it sends a chill through the narrative. Miss Martha, her girls, their visitor – their lives are all filled with desolation and their very interactions are symptomatic of the rot which comes with war and the way it affects human interaction. What war does, at its very worst, is lend a note of staid pointlessness to civilian life. Everything exists in deference to this unseen but always present idea. And Coppola distils this tension in the most effective of ways.
The film is gorgeous to look at but the beauty is tense and ambiguous. The sense of atmosphere is distinct and moody, buoyed by some of the finest mise en scène and cinematography of the year. Faced with the implicit dilemma of solving whether this milieu one of beauty or one of terror, the creative team (cinematographer, Phillippe Le Sourd, production designer Anne Rose). Le Sourd’s cinematography is superlative and becomes one of Coppola’s most efficient tools in telegraphing the film’s themes. The Beguiled loves its tableaus. The film is a brief 90 minutes, but each shot suggests languor. At first we are charmed, beguiled even, by the opportunities it gives us to examine the surroundings. By midway the cyclical nature of those semi-tableaus (one shot of the grand, empty house; another shot of the ladies at prayer; another shot of Kidman’s domineering grimace and then beginning again) becomes stultifying. We are trapped here in a gorgeous, limiting place and each frame begins to mimic that entrapment.
In the late seventies Jacques Derrida wrote one of my favourite bits of theory from the decade, about the fabulously textual bomb. One of Derrida’s major arguments was that nuclear destruction, because it has never happened, can only be represented in the margins. Of course, war is not fabulously textual. It has happened, but in the same way a film like The Beguiled argues for the compelling nature of looking at the margins. I like the margins. It’s why I opted to see The Beguiled instead of the other war film showing (War for Planet of the Apes) and before the next war film comes to theatre (Dunkirk). There is something about a war, but art tends to get more interesting when it turns its camera on to the fringes than the direct.
In its sly, flirtatious, dangerous way, The Beguiled film does grapple with the malaise, the inertia, the banality and the unforgiving nature of war. And not just war, religion treatises, gender roles all come under fire here and what compels then frustrates then beguiles about the film is the way it emerges as not really a treatise with a specific argument to make but as a filmic Rorschach text. It’s credit to the actors that they register so effectively in a film which functions more as artistic mood piece than a regular film. All actions within the film are more suggestive than realistic, more metaphor than mimesis. There is no standout really, each of the cast is effective in their role. Nicole Kidman communicates much with a raised eyebrow, Elle Fanning churlishly and lazily tilling some soil speaks as much to her teenage insolence as it does to her classist values. (“The slaves left,” one of the girls tells us early on.) Kirsten Dunst, as the teacher who is most enchanted by the stranger is given an especially dour role that recalls her best work in Melancholia. It’s a less rounded character, more abstruse, but she acquits it well and it’s her resolute focus that makes the final scene (not so much problematic as unnerving) work. Farrell gets the most difficult role and he’s been better elsewhere, but he does well not being drowned in the waves of femininity around him.
But individual plaudits feel negligible. The film is constantly working towards something communal and the shots reflect where multiple characters are almost always present. The group emerges as a unit giving a single performance that makes the film. It’s why the final shot: a chilling shot of the ladies in repose (technically a shot with the entire cast) is so effective. In war there is no personal, and there is no individual. There are only tropes, there are the signified and the signifiers. What they signify is more complex and bleak. War is awful. Humanity is doomed. Our survival instinct saves us but also fells us. Much has been made about Coppola’s decision to mute the animalistic nature of her characters. Surely, though, her point is clear – the beauteous homes, the gorgeous gowns, the murmuring voices are only on the surface. The rot is on the inside. And it’s the surface that charms us. That’s why we are beguiled.