There’s a routine of complaints traditionally leveled at Sofia Coppola. Beyond the faux pas of being born rich, she’s been drawn as more of a choreographer of tableaux than a storyteller. Critics have bemoaned her visions of character interiority signaled by dreamy music cues and symmetrical framing over wordy dialogues or dredged-up performances from her stars, who are inevitably blonde and beautiful. Particularly since Lost in Translation’s reverse-xenophobia meet-cute, Coppola has alternated between accusations of flaunting her privilege and hosannas for being honest about it.
But if The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, and (perhaps more debatably) Somewhere girded themselves against these considerations by putting their own haute-bourgeois blinkeredness front and center, the terrain is far murkier in Coppola’s The Beguiled. This is a filmmaker obsessed with feminine beauty and ephemeral tragedy of time’s passage—so just how boilerplate is her Civil War-era chamber piece supposed to be? Even if you concur that style and substance are, in fact, inextricable from one another, The Beguiled serves as proof that what goes for naturalism in Coppola’s dominion still verges on being decorative to the point of self-parody.
The Beguiled takes place at a decaying Seminary for Young Ladies in rural Virginia during the height of the Civil War, a small community lorded over by headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman, applying her trademark vampish eyebrow maneuvers to the maximum). While picking mushrooms in the forest, pre-teen student Amy (Oona Lawrence) happens upon a wounded Union soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell, plausibly sociopathic yet doe-eyed in a single breath), and drags him back to the school to convalesce. Much of the tension constituting The Beguiled’s first two acts is subsequently wrought from the mixed reactions that greet him there. Probing her characters one languorous close-up at a time, Coppola weighs Martha’s tough-love skepticism toward the corporal against the softer pinings of both Alicia (Elle Fanning), the school’s oldest pupil, and Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), one of the teachers.
The film is a display of aesthetic-emotive prowess, told from one ethereal and vogueish look to the next—and if taken strictly as a mood piece, it’s beyond reproach. Coppola’s ensemble manages to evoke dull echoes of life-worn pain from a screenplay that gives them essentially zero backstory and a series of dialogues whose sparse and withholding nature can only be deliberate. The case can be made for The Beguiled, adapted like the 1971 Don Siegel version from the 1966 Thomas P. Cullinan novel, fitting into a cinephilic legacy: The hushed timbre of Amy’s relationship to the immobilized McBurney harkens back to Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive, while the remoteness of this particular moss-eaten, Greek-columned location evokes Picnic at Hanging Rock, Black Narcissus, and the films of Luchino Visconti.
An immigrant-cum-mercenary who’s pegged the value of his life at $300, McBurney wastes no time gaslighting Alicia and Edwina. After developing feelings toward the bedridden Irishman that are both complicated and sincere, Edwina finds him in flagrante delicto late one night with Alicia—and indeed, without Dunst’s impeccably coiled performance, it’d be hard to know for sure what this betrayal really means. One quick glimpse turns the film on its axis, bringing Coppola’s screenplay further into revenge-thriller territory and exposing the story’s own, spring-loaded salacious side in the process.
The long-simmered breakdown in relations between McBurney and his keepers—to say nothing of his inevitable and psychotic assertion of male dominance—is The Beguiled’s make-or-break moment: prematurely climactic after so much fragmentary quietude. Suddenly, the film is less apiece with the socio-historical context of the Civil War than it is with the trendy and, lest we forget, long-overdue misandry of 2017. This isn’t to say that men aren’t trash; it’s that the film stakes so much on that revelation as to linger in the memory, once the credits have rolled, as something of a pantomime in themes.
The dollhouse restrictions Coppola has set for herself cast a dirge-like pall over everything that happens next, combing the story—alongside her previous parables—into a kind of haunting collective feminist memory. Even held against the flashback-laden psychosexual hysteria of Siegel’s version, Coppola’s film feels concise to the point of constipation. Lush with texture and atmosphere, each passing moment is opulently cinematic—and yet the overall assemblage comes off inorganic at best, taxidermied at worst. It would have been far riskier to ground the film’s narrative vantage with Edwina, Amy, Alicia, or Martha and to keep it there. Instead, Coppola serves up a cautionary revenge tale told from multiple perspectives, and thus none at all. What results is her least audacious, and most conventionally respectable, work yet.