As a filmmaker, everything for Sophia Coppola is just so. Arranged with the immaculate eye of a master, it’s hard not to marvel. Coppola makes films that are fragile, films that use that composition to let the emotions show just underneath the shimmering surface.
Yet it’s that same fragility that made a seemingly natural fit for a story like The Beguiled that ended up necessarily being its undoing. It’s a problem that plagued her on The Bling Ring, a story that demanded trash but Coppola didn’t get her hands dirty making.
Too campy to be a chamber drama, too polite to be a bloody gothic horror, The Beguiled ends up stuck in a netherworld of things that work almost solely on a technical level but have trouble finding the proper emotional hook to pull into the world.
A remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 film (itself an adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s book The Painted Devil), the story is set in the waning days of the Civil War in a girl’s boarding school somewhere in Virginia. Run by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), the school is an an enclave from the war raging around.
Until that enclave is disrupted by a Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), injured and seeking refuge. Farnsworth and her teacher Ms. Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) take him into the school, setting off a steamy brew of sexual repression and suspicion.
I want to establish before anything else that the technical skill on display here is undeniable. Coppola has an immaculate eye for composition and directorial vision, and the look of this film is stunning, capturing better than any the feeling of the South in the Summer, that humidity that you can see dripping from the trees. She even gets what that might do to the environment, the way people react and live in a world like that, all about staying immaculate while everything around you makes you want to throw the trappings of society off.
I also want to make it clear that the actors are clearly giving it all they got. Kidman is clearly having a hell of a year right now and this is a role built for her at her most controlled. Farrell’s career revival continues unabated, Dunst does some fine work and Elle Fanning repeatedly proves my theory that the younger sibling is always the more interesting actor.
But all of that style comes at the service of not all that much substance. The Beguiled is definitely a fruitful story and one that you can see much to piece through.
The problem is the kind of story it is. The Beguiled is a Southern gothic horror, a story of sex and betrayal and intrigue and violence, supernatural maybe but otherwordly yes.
Coppola’s capturing something else, but she’s never fully diving in. For all her beautiful images, there’s no digging in deep. It’s a horror of manners, but the manners don’t end up revealing anything.
There’s no blood here. I mean, yes, there is blood, quite a bit of it. But the passion feels contrived at best, the sex and gore feels rote. You can’t help but cry out for anything, some bit of viscera or something that intrigues, that pulls into the film. Coppola won’t let the veneer down and it keeps The Beguiled too civil.
This means that veneer stays up over the characters too. We’re never let into the inner lives of these people, it’s hard to understand why any of them ultimately want anything they do besides raw knowledge of human behavior.
A major story point revolves around one of the schoolgirls Alice (Elle Fanning) and her desire for McBurney. Which is kind of dropped on us out of nowhere, given no actual buildup, and relies on the knowledge that sex is a thing people want.
Which if the film was willing to get messy, take some deviations, we might be able to take some time and get into the character psychology. But The Beguiled never does that and it ends up amounting to a whole lot of skill without an ounce of fire.
I want to like what I recognize is so well-made. But it seems hard to have such a pulpy story told by a filmmaker who wants to strain all of that out, a story that should splatter and is instead delicately drizzled.