Movie Review – The Beguiled (2017)

The Beguiled (2017)
Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola

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Corporal John McBurney, a Union soldier in the American Civil War, ends up wounded behind enemy lines and is found by the residents of Martha Farnsworth’s girl’s school. At first, the plan is to turn John over to the Confederate soldiers when they come by the institute, but the decision to allow his wounds to heal is preferred citing “Christian treatment.” While it seems awfully lovely that the headmistress doesn’t want John being made to march injured causing him to die, the reality is the women and girls here have taken a fondness for the wounded soldier. This takes a dark turn as John’s intentions are revealed to be much more nefarious and dishonest.

Sofia Coppola is a director I have struggled with for going on two decades. I still love her debut feature, The Virgin Suicides, and feel it was a very confident debut. From the storytelling structure to the cinematography and music, Coppola was hitting on all cylinders right out of the gate. I found her follow up Lost in Translation to be an even stronger, and more stylistically controlled presentation. The takeaway for most people from that film was the choice to make the final words between Scarlett Johanssen and Billy Murray’s characters unheard by the audience. It’s that sort of restrained and muted tone that has become the most recurring motif of Coppola’s films.

The Beguiled is a very restrained film, almost dreamlike. Any sense of time or urgency is absent, and we are never clear how long John is in the school. The only moments where we feel that the clock is ticking is the final act, but even in that is resolved relatively quickly and concisely. For the majority of the film, the characters simmer held back by societal expectations. John is kept locked in the music room, and the young ladies are told to stay away. Inevitable, they begin entering and having brief conversations with the wounded man. The only remaining teacher, Edwina, becomes unusually intimate with John and he makes some inferences about how she came to be in this isolated estate, with plans to help her escape to a more exciting life.

The film is based on a novel that was originally adapted in 1971 and starred Clint Eastwood. That version tells the story from the point of view of John, while Coppola intentionally set out to frame the story from the women’s perspective. There is definitely a statement being made about interjected masculinity into a purely feminine environment and the destructive potential that can come out of that situation. While it might be easy to say Coppola is saying that men are responsible for the conflict, there is more going on under the surface. There is already discontent in Edwina that seems to be bubbling to the surface. The denouement of the story frame Edwina as still part of this community of women but also distant. There is much being said about the way women are held back from wilder, more adventurous pursuits that men are acclaimed for.

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