***1/2 (out of five)
Sofia Coppola’s new Beguiled, crediting both the 1966 novel and the 1971 screenplay as source material, is a surprisingly snappy and relentlessly atmospheric slice of “Southern Gothic”. Although Coppola and her cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd gleefully fetishise the Spanish moss, southern live oak trees and glamorously decaying architectural features of their gorgeous south Louisiana plantation locations, Coppola and her editor, Sarah Flack, refuse to dwell on them. The melodramatic, sultry story takes precedence over the pretty pictures, marking what some will claim as a maturing of Coppola’s style (I will), while some may miss the lugubriousness of The Virgin Suicides, which is her closest film, aesthetically and thematically, to this one.
Top-billed Colin Farrell plays a wounded Union soldier who is sheltered within a grand girl’s seminary in Virginia. The small group of women living there claim it is Christian values keeping them from immediately handing him over to the Confederate soldiers – their soldiers – who are omnipresent nearby and who routinely check in on the women at the seminary gates. In reality, it is sexual desire. Farrell’s entrance into the house sets each and every one of their hearts and other parts aflutter, and as they individually make plays for his affection, so too he, as clever as he is handsome, plays them off against each other. Of course, this is southern gothic, and you don’t need to be Tennessee Williams to know what kind of trouble all this furtive flirting may lead to.
The film is completely apolitical. Coppola has said as much in multiple interviews, and also freely discussed shooting Farrell with an unapologetically objectifying gaze. He does look too gorgeous for the given circumstances – his haircut, for one thing, is too sharp for a soldier’s shears – but thankfully he doesn’t have the modern Hollywood Male Body, which would have made him ludicrous (that said, his body looks fantastic, just not condom-full-of-walnuts). The film is also not particularly interested in history and certainly not the details of the war (the Louisiana locations, with their hanging moss, even defy the vegetation of Virginia). Really, the film is set in an American south during an American Civil War; it is abstracted, fairy-tale.
The plot and motivations are melodramatic and overcooked, deliberately and enjoyably. Each of four generations of actresses gets to have enormous fun straining their desire against their tight corsets: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning and Australia’s own Angourie Rice, who remains uncannily brilliant in her mid-teens. If anything, I would have liked to see all of them allowed perhaps ten percent more scenery to chew; because the film is so fast (it’s all done and dusted in 93 minutes) their motivations seem to be a step behind their actual actions. I actually suspect that a lot more was shot, with the intention of letting the film breathe and luxuriate in the style of The Virgin Suicides, and then a radical decision was made to accelerate everything in the editing suite. If true, that choice may have made for a few jarring moments, but has resulted in Coppola’s leanest, meanest film, and one that is less an objet d’art than a guilty pleasure.
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