It’s been awhile since I’ve watched something this good.
I knew nothing about The Beguiled before going into it. I love watching movies this way. With no perceptions to correct, and nothing to anticipate. I get to experience every moment of the movie as something new. I was especially glad I knew nothing about this one. After watching The Beguiled, I went back and watched trailers for it, and hated them. They reveal too much, and they paint an oddly sinister picture of the film’s women. When I invited my brother to see the movie with me, he asked, “Is that that Victorian horror film?”
While I enjoyed not knowing anything about The Beguiled before seeing it, I obviously can’t write a review that just says, “See it. It’s fantastic. Just trust me.” I necessarily have to reveal more than I’d like to. If that’s all the recommendation you need, by all means, stop reading here! But for those who need more convincing, here’s a proper review of the film.
It’s pretty clear in the opening scenes that life isn’t too exciting at the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies. One of the teachers, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst Marie Antoinette), shows the dullest melancholy on her face as she instructs basic French. One of her students, Alicia (Elle Fanning, 20th Century Women), rests her head on her fist and points her eyes upward, looking just plain bored.
The seminary takes place in a Virginia plantation home, enveloped by large trees covered in moss that hang like drapes. The surrounding scenery has all the atmosphere of an enchanted forest, but its inhabitants are far from dazzled. So when another student stumbles upon a wounded Union soldier while picking mushrooms, and feels compelled to help him to the seminary, they all decide against turning him over to Confederates and instead take him in.
The soldier is John McBurney (Colin Farrell, The Lobster), an Irish-American mercenary with a serious leg wound, and some serious sex appeal. The whole house becomes bewitched by his charms. Everyone starts dressing their best and trying to find excuses to see how John’s doing or if he needs anything. Their desires and needs have been suppressed for much too long, so that there’s something almost primitive about the way they go after him. Though, John isn’t just a sex object to a bunch of horny ladies; he embodies all the wonder and excitement of the world beyond the plantation, the world of the exotic “enemy.”
As The Beguiled unfolds, however, the dynamic drastically changes, and we see another side of John. After realizing he does not have the control over the women he thought he had, he turns from the charmer into the brute. He goes from seeking power through seduction, to seeking power through force.
It is common in movies to depict women fighting over a man. The famous Clooney sisters song says it well: “Lord help the mister who comes between me and my sister, and Lord help the sister who comes between me and my man.” The latter note, however, doesn’t get played in The Beguiled. The women do compete for John’s affections, and he thinks this gives him power, but he underestimates their comradery and their strength. Lord help the mister, indeed; he’s going to need it.
There are eight characters in The Beguiled. I imagine you could watch the movie eight times, each time focusing on a different character, and it would remain interesting through every viewing. That’s how good it is. None of these characters are two-dimensional.
Perhaps my favorite was Martha, the leader of the group (Nicole Kidman, The Hours). She takes her leadership seriously and wants to do the right thing. But at the same time, she is a human being with human longings. While she can try to be the stoic leader, she can’t stop herself from, say, getting aroused when sponging John’s strong body after dressing his wound. She is principled but has also been cut off from society for a long time, stranded in responsibility. All of this finds itself expressed in her every scene.
This level of character study is made possible by the film’s calm, intentional direction. It isn’t boring at all, it’s just patient. Sofia Coppola is a true master. Her artistry in this film reminded me of Hitchcock. She draws you into the frame to pay attention to little details, as she very slowly builds suspense. She’s not desperate for attention but entices nonetheless. Even the most subtle moments are totally engrossing.
I love slow, quiet movies. There’s something really nice about a movie that doesn’t race along or try to capture your attention with big, exciting moments. I’d rather watch something “boring” like Babette’s Feast or Barry Lyndon than even the greatest superhero film. So I loved The Beguiled. It’s slow and quiet, but brilliant and exciting. They just don’t make’em like this anymore.