This is an extremely strange and unsettling film – which is not to say that it’s consistently good. It hits the ground running with a close-up of an operation, but then becomes maddeningly – but evidently deliberately – mannered and distancing.
The central characters are wealthy heart surgeon Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) and his opthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman). They like to have sex whilst pretending that Anna is under general anaesthetic. Both of them speak in a flat deadpan manner, employing staccato phrases whether discussing the mundane or the important. So, for no apparent reason, do many of the other characters, who include the couple’s two children. It’s rather as if they’d consciously based their styles on that of the young David Byrne, circa “Psycho Killer”. It’s also hard to work out whether the effect is meant to be intermittently funny, and harder still to suspend disbelief.
So far, so-so. But Stephen has a friendship with Martin (Barry Keoghan), a distinctly odd – even in this context – and obsessive teenager whose late father was one of Stephen’s patients. We become mildly curious as to exactly how all these people relate to each other.
And then – ah, but that would be telling. Suffice it to say that at a certain point the story suddenly gets much more engrossing, even as it becomes absurd.
The music is effective, the widescreen cinematography is striking and the plot is, shall we say, unusual. And whatever its other strengths and weaknesses, there is at least one scene you are guaranteed to remember.
Sofia Coppola’s career may have all been leading up to this. Her propensity to bring life to period settings in Marie Antoinette, her equally laconic and dreamlike approach to violence in The Virgin Suicides, and her feminist roots that have been fostered in each and every one of her films is all played pitch-perfectly in her new film, The Beguiled. The film is set in a girls’ school in the South during the American Civil War where seven women live alone. One day, one of the students comes across a wounded soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Yankee and the enemy, who they take in and care for. But the longer he stays, the higher tensions rise as the women’s competing desires begin to boil to the surface.
It is no wonder that Coppola won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival where The Beguiled was in competition for the prestigious Palm d’Or. There is a magnetism to this film that lures you in, scene after scene, deeper into its narrative. Part of this hypnotic quality comes from the cinematography of Philippe le Sourd (The Grandmaster). This is one of the most beautiful films out this year. The girls’ school, a huge estate trapped in the middle of a forest and the Civil War, is shut off from the world. Light attempts to pierce through the trees to no avail. A mystical fog constantly lingers. There is a sense of powerlessness to these women as they watch the distant smoke of battle slowly creeping in around them.
When they come across McBurney, the wounded soldier, they decide to take him in because of their Christian values, but also, though they never say it, because he is so handsome. It’s easy to imagine a different scenario where this film’s story would never have taken place, had the injured soldier been less appealing. But quickly, the girls realise that he is also a charmer and we, the audience, learn he is a liar. Within days he is spinning vastly different narratives to bring himself closer with each girl and woman. The main objects of his desire are the headstrong headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), her naïve assistant, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and the eldest and most troublesome of the students, Alicia (Ella Fanning).
Each actor and actress is perfect in their respective roles, particularly Colin Farrell who hasn’t been this good since his wonderful and yet starkly different role in In Bruges.
This film, like its protagonist, engages in a grand seduction. As the film moves along Coppola coils in, as, little by little, the girls’ original fears of the soldier are traded for lust and with each passing day, they are all falling under his spell. The quips they exchange with McBurney become more flirtatious and hide a deeper subtext, a deeper desire. In terms of pacing, thrillers do not get much better than this. The film is restrained and explosive at exactly the right moments.
But what the film is really about is female power. In a world where they would otherwise be powerless due to societal expectations and due to the expectations they impose upon themselves, these women rise up and face their fears head-on. In the last act of the film, they are truly something terrifying and inspiring to behold.