Dir: Sophie Coppola | Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning, Kirsten Dunst, Oona Laurence | 91min | Thriller | US
Set in Louisiana and shot in 35mm THE BEGUILED is Sophie Coppola’s re-telling of Thomas Cullinan’s original 1966 novel that explores the powerplay and sexual tension that erupts between a group of differently-aged nubile females and an attractive male forced into their midst during the American Civil War.
Luminously mounted (the operative word – as the movie reveals!), THE BEGUILED sizzles swelteringly in its Southern Gothic aesthetic while remaining as delicate as a starched doily. Colin Farrell is dashingly seductive as the union soldier McBurney transported to this prim and proper confederate ladies’ school when he is rescued, wounded, in nearby woods by one of the youngest girls. Presided over by Nicole Kidman’s prickly Madame Martha who disapproves of the enemy element but secretly joins the innocent ladies’ lustful queue in the shape of Kirsten Dunst’ glacial French mistress Edwina, and Elle Fanning’s disruptive teenager Alicia with an eye for the main chance, the film works as a psychological thriller and a historical drama.
Sophie Coppola makes a dramatic reverse thrust in her clever narrative once Alicia’s cat has been let out of the bag transforming the dynamic of the entire household and transferring the power from a female perspective to a rugged male one, thus unleashing anger, fear and pent up longing all round, although we are never quite sure who is ultimately in control. As McBurney gets to know Martha’s pupils, it’s unsure whether he is trustworthy or a snake in the grass with lascivious intentions. And his masculine vulnerability sparks both desire and inquietude in the young women. He also has a cunning male knack of making them all feel intimate with him showering praise and compliments, individually, in an obsequiously sincere way. Competing with each other covertly for his affections, the girls try to maintain their ladylike behaviour but on an animal level their instincts lead them in a different direction.
Philippe Le Sourd’s hazy visuals give the film a dreamlike quality as if the college is caught in a time-warp from which there is no escape, and yet a drousy longing to remain. The film also has a timeless nature dealing with evergreen themes which could easily translate to a comtemporary setting. Don Siegel made a 1971 version of the story starring Clint Eastwood as the soldier who seduces the women, gradually turning them against each other and eventually himself.
Performances are superlative especially from Nicole Kidman as the cocquettish but buttoned-up Marsha, and Elle Fanning Alicia in the first flush of burgeoning sexuality. Both manage vague flirtatiousness while keeping their upper lips stiff. But Farrell is the standout in a complex portrait that feels ambiguous but retains an intruiging tension throughout. This is Coppola’s most absorbing and accomplished work so far. MT
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 17-28 MAY 2017 | IN COMPETITION