Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) lies wounded under a tree, but seems to have come to a stroke of luck when he is found by a young girl named Amy who then helps him to her girls' school in Virginia. The setting is a sultry south in the midst of Civil War, but this world is removed from the action, the only reminders plumes of smoke in the distance and subdued explosions. Contrary to the warfare that surrounds them, girls conjugate French verbs and Coppola is careful to always put soldiers at a distance or through a barrier the few times they inhabit the scenes.
McBurney asks several times throughout the movie and of the different girls: "Are there any men here?" Or several variants of "Is there a man in your life?" The answer is always no, which is likely why the environment and plot transpires the way it does thenceforth. Farrell is unctuous, manipulative, and charming in all the right ways to all the women and girls of the school as he recovers from his leg wound. But he underestimates them, much to his detriment.
It's easy to similarly underestimate The Beguiled. It's a subdued film in an entertainment climate that is excessive. There are several moments that Coppola could choose to go up close or to relish in the squeamishness. However, it's her restraint that gives strength, not unlike several of the characters involved. Unlike the 1971 film, this film takes the side of the women of the story. Although McBurney appears to be in power in the beginning, we see this time that ultimately it is the man that is being objectified in the story. The females have desires that go beyond his personal charm but cater to their own motivations. His power is in fact subverted.
I have little desire to reveal too much of The Beguiled except to say that close attention should be paid to all the details, which are mirrored and contrasted in the second half of the movie. Although this is the most dialogue-heavy of Coppola's films thus far, so much is created through her use of mood and the physical and facial expressions. The climactic scene is simply a masterpiece.
All of the players here are phenomenal. This is possibly one of Farrell's best turns, as he's able to give a complex and layered performance even as he somehow believably amps up physical chemistry in all the necessary situations. Nicole Kidman is a resolute, Southern purring matron whose lovely yet tenacious figure gratifies Coppola's vision in every way. Thank god we can finally see Elle Fanning's talent under a capable director. This, I have the feeling, is what Refn was going for in Neon Demon, in her innocent seduction that is both natural and ruinous. And we can't forget long-time collaborator Kirsten Dunst, who is able to evince warring emotions even as she exemplifies the film's ephemeral restraint.
For Coppola, when she first handed the script to first time collaborator cinematographer Philippe le Sourd, there was no question that The Beguiled had to be shot on film. The Kodak 35mm suits the hazy, grainy mutes of the mood perfectly. The 1.66:1 ratio chosen not only because it's old-fashioned, but also because it forces the camera to focus on character and their movements intimately, which was the intent of the story. For the final product, le Sourd pull-processed the footage in order to increase the grain, strengthen the range of the pastel colors, and to sharpen some of the details in the dark. The result is a visual story that hearkens to both its fairy tale and gothic elements.
Coppola is the second female to ever win the Best Director award at Cannes this year with The Beguiled. And if the reasons why aren't readily apparent, take a closer look at the strings that pull the film together. Weaving a strong narrative with the langorous visuals that don't alienate its viewers while choreographing a stellar cast to perform at its best, The Beguiled is a real pleasure, like a tangy lemonade on a sultry summer day.