Beneath Sofia Coppola’s painterly images lies a pulpy, darkly funny genre flick about the interplay of sex and violence.
When Sofia Coppola won this year's best director prize at Cannes, it was only the second time a woman had claimed the category in the festival's 71 outings. Nominated for the same award at the 2003 Oscars, she became only the third female to even get a nod (Kathryn Bigelow's history-making win for The Hurt Locker was still six years away). As a female filmmaker – even one who is part of a Hollywood dynasty – Coppola exists a world where women are trapped by circumstances beyond their control, but remain determined to break free of their confines. It's little wonder that her movies concern characters doing the same, depicting their struggles in astute, impassioned, eye-catching fashion.
Inquisitive minds and longing hearts striving to shatter gilded cages: this is Coppola's cinematic specialty. It proved true with The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere and The Bling Ring – indeed, if someone once told Coppola to show what she knows, it would appear that she took their advice and ran with it. With The Beguiled, she adds the inhabitants of a civil war-era girls school to her growing squad of ladies seeking something other than the life they've been saddled with. To her resume, she adds a handsome period piece that doubles as a scathing satire.
In the second big screen version of Thomas P. Cullinan's novel A Painted Devil (following a 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle), the violence of the civil war finds the women of Miss Farnsworth's Seminary for Young Ladies left to their own devices. Headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) runs a tight ship, with teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) assisting, giving pupils such as Amy (Oona Laurence), Jane (Angourie Rice) and Alicia (Elle Fanning) life and needlework lessons. Then wounded Union soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) wanders into the school grounds, forcing the group to reluctantly do the Christian thing by letting him rest and recuperate before they turn him in.
The expression "a fox in the henhouse" might seem to apply here, as stereotype-reinforcing as it can be. But Coppola doesn't let a predator loose; rather, she uses an outsider as a catalyst to show just what lurks inside her dollhouse. That said, the eyebrow-arching Kidman, yearning Dunst and flirtatious Fanning are much, much more than mere playthings for the film and their gentleman guest, although that doesn't stop him from trying to worm his way into their hearts and nightgowns. Beneath the school's meticulous veneer, the women react to the sudden male presence in their midst, with desire cutting both ways (sometimes literally).
The result is a smart, savvy exploration of lust and power in the long-running battle of the sexes. It's also a film that refuses to conform to expectations, just like its protagonists. While every inch the Coppola movie (complete with music by Phoenix), The Beguiled is as much a genre flick about the interplay of sex and violence as it is a nuanced drama about restraint, a textured character study of its fenced-in figures, and a razor-sharp comedy of manners. Within her candle-lit, painterly frames springs a feature that couldn't be more alluring yet tenacious and rebellious, nor more appropriately so.
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