Hello, everyone! Having just seen The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s latest film for which she won Best Director at Cannes, I’m left feeling confused. To say the film is good or bad oversimplifies the matter; it simply feels half baked. Coppola’s take on author Thomas Cullinan’s novel is lush, beautiful to behold, and potent with tension, but it’s held back by flawed pacing. Coppola is skilled at crafting slow, atmospheric movies like Lost in Translation, but while that film’s anti-climactic ending was a perfect period to its meandering plot, The Beguiled has an explosion of climax with too much rising action and almost no resolution balance to it out. Whether the fault in pacing is due to the source material (I’ve never read the book so I can’t comment) or due to Coppola’s own directorial choices remains to be seen, but the result is a film that feels as incomplete as General McBurney’s amputated leg.
Plot Synopsis: While picking mushrooms, young Amy finds the wounded Corporal John McBurney who begs her to help him before he’s discovered by Confederate soldiers. Despite her hesitation about helping a Union soldier, Amy takes him to Mrs. Martha Farnsworth Seminary For Young Ladies, which has remained open throughout the American Civil War. The headmistress, Martha (Nicole Kidman) is initially wary about McBurney, but becomes enamored with him as his stay lengthens and his leg heals. Soon fellow teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and student Alicia (Elle Fanning) follow in her footsteps and jealousies and competition simmer between the women for McBurney’s attention. With the school overwhelmed by infighting and turbulence, a rash decision changes McBurney forever, putting the fate of Mrs. Farnworth and her students in jeopardy.
My take: I’ll start with the strengths of the film, the primary one being its visual style. I was drawn in first by the film’s opening credits, which integrated the title with the cinematography in a gorgeous way. The color scheme is primarily white, pink, and dark green, which lent the film a graceful, delicate feel, while still feeling earthy. Many films these days don’t give enough attention to color palette so it’s always a treat to watch a movie that has a cohesive palette that plays up the emotions of the film, these being femininity, passion, restraint, and isolation. Just a few beautiful images, to give you a taste:
The way Coppola played with lines and blocking was captivating; asymmetrical framing showed up a few times, as if to express the uneven nature of the central character’s motivations, and the women were always clustered together in shots, showing that despite their infatuation with McBurney, they’ll always value their own desires above his.
Also spectacular: costuming and scenery. I appreciated how the pure whiteness of the women’s dresses belied their inner volatility, and how the idyllic greenery of the plantation grounds distracted from the turmoil inside the house. One detail that damaged the credibility of the scenery for me was that I’m pretty sure (I could be mistaken though) that one of the girls says the school is located in Virginia, but the exterior shots are clearly located in the Deep South. The Spanish moss keyed me in: we Virginians don’t see much of that in these here parts. The school was located in Mississippi in the book, so I’m not sure why they would alter that detail, especially since the film was shot in Louisiana.
As a purely visual work, The Beguiled would be a fantastic film, but it suffers from misjudged pacing and a clumsy script. The movie starts immediately with the introduction of McBurney’s character, so the audience gets no background on the Farnsworth women before he enters the house. This creates a contextual problem for the audience: it’s difficult for us to understand these characters’ motivations and actions when we have no prior knowledge of their personalities. For me, it felt like these characters were sketches with bits and pieces of details filled in, so when they made drastic decisions, there was a disconnect between how I should feel about their decisions and what I actually felt. For example, Kirsten Dunst’s character Edwina says one line that shows she feels trapped in her life at the Farnsworth seminary, but besides that, all we learn about her desires come from clues in cinematography. When Coppola shoots her from behind a lace curtain, the audience is supposed to gather that she feels repressed, but it would certainly help if we were given more substance to back that up.
Subtext is important in a film, but the actual text needs to be strong enough to express the film’s theme if the subtext falls between the cracks. The Beguiled is like a boiling pot of water; there’s a lot of heat below the surface, but until the bubbles start to roil, the surface is still. Coppola’s film is mostly still water, then a burst of bubbles, and then back to the still water. The problem is that all of that still water is so murky that I left the film feeling like I barely scratched the surface of these character’s wants and needs.
A simple premise in screenwriting states that main characters need a false goal and a real goal, and that these goals should be realized in a character arc. The false goal is the goal the characters think they want to achieve, while the real goal is a greater truth that they end up realizing by the end of their character arc. There are of course deviations from this premise, but I’d say that the majority of films follow this basic premise, mostly because it creates a satisfying story. The Beguiled doesn’t supply false goals or real goals for any of its main characters, and thus these characters don’t have any substantial arc. We’re left guessing at what motivates these characters to do what they do; consequently, their actions left us feeling unsatisfied because we’re not sure what inspired them.
For Edwina, her false goal is to escape Farnsworth? But after the film ends, she’s still where she started. Has she learned anything besides disappointment? We can’t be sure, as Coppola never delves into her reaction to the events at the school. As for Nicole Kidman’s character Martha Farnsworth, her motivations are completely unclear. Elle Fanning’s character Alicia are equally vague, basically ascribed to teenage lust and nothing else. The script does a disservice to a film that is notable for having such a large cast of female characters, but none of them get enough development. In contrast, McBurney gets a defined goal and all of his actions and reactions make sense with his character.
The film is a slow burn, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but as I said above, there’s an explosion of payoff and then zero resolution. We don’t get insight into the character’s reflection on the events of the climax, though we can assume that they are permanently changed by them. As a director, it’s your discretion as to the extent of reflection in characters, but you have to give something to make characters into something more than connected actions. Coppola gives little on either side, and her film suffers because of it.
Final consensus: The Beguiled is beautiful film, but has little in way of theme or character development. Relying on below-the-surface tension and implied motivations, the film falls apart at the moment of truth. I was left feeling like I’d watched a movie edited to the bone, or one with not enough material to begin with. If you’re a Coppola diehard fan, it’s a pleasant diversion, but if you’re expecting a masterpiece like Lost In Translation, skip this flick.