I never knew where The Beguiled was going. The conventions of film made me speculate, but my predictions were consistently wrong. Even if I came close to calling the movie early, writer/director Sofia Coppola deviated from the norm in a way that was immensely compelling. This isn’t to suggest that The Beguiled is full of shocking twists; it’s more abstract than that. What’s captivating about the film is how it flirts with convention, but choses to introduce more human, complex variables.
We live in a weird time, media wise. A time where I binge-watch a full season of television in one week, then have trouble remembering a single thing from that season, mere days after I watched it. We’re so fixated on instant gratification; the episode-ending cliffhanger that triggers our mind to allow just one more. But more than ever, the majority of TV and film I consume is utterly hollow. The other day, a friend asked me if I liked Kong: Skull Island, and I realized I could not remember a thing about it. I sat in the theater and was fully engaged while watching it, but I can’t recall one line of dialogue, or one standout scene. All I remember is watching it, and leaving the theater content that I got what I paid for.
That’s how the majority of content has been for me the past few years. As soon as I turn Netflix off or walk out of a theater, the hollow gratification of the content begins to fade away, and I’m left with no lasting memory of what I’ve seen. There are exceptions, of course, and the point I’m trying to make is that I sometimes forget movies like The Beguiled still exist. The Beguiled was made for $10 million and shot in 26 days, which is nothing compared to today’s content standards. Yet the film is more visually appealing and emotionally resonant than any five modern TV shows I’ve seen combined, perhaps because The Beguiled feels classic in a digital age.
I don’t want to oversell the film. I enjoyed it immensely, but it’s far from Sofia Coppola’s best work. The movie is slow and patient, tediously composed and lacking in conventional plot. But it’s new. It’s fresh and alive. It lives in a way very few films do today. And that makes it worthwhile.
John is led back to the school and we meet the women who will soon be affected by him. Martha (Nicole Kidman) runs the school; she’s fair, strict, and deeply religious. Martha’s conflict with housing a Union soldier in a Confederate state is instantly apparent. Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) teaches at the school. She’s the heart of the film; innocent and kind, captivated by John right away. Alicia (Elle Fanning) is the eldest pupil; suspicious and mischievous as most sexually confused teenagers are. And that’s what The Beguiled is really about: the confusion of sexual repression. Martha, Edwina and Alicia are all spinning for John in one way or another, and John plays into each of them masterfully. But to what avail? There isn’t a single scene of The Beguiled in which we see John alone. The entire film is captured through the eyes of the women, so we’re never privy to John’s intentions. Such a narrative choice helps make the film so arresting.
The importance Sofia Coppola places on her visual aesthetic makes her one of the most visually confident directors working in film. She has great respect for composition, it’s evident in all of her work. She hires cinematographers who aren’t afraid to take risks. Edward Lachman (The Virgin Suicides), Lance Acord (Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette), Harris Savides (Somewhere, The Bling Ring), and now Philippe Le Sourd - all men whose specific styles blend perfectly with Coppola’s vision.
The look of The Beguiled is classic and gorgeous. The movie is bathed in soft blues and blush pinks, creams and sunsets. The camera moves little, occasionally pushing in to emphasize a point, or panning sideways to fully capture a space. Coppola treats cinematography as a character. The Beguiled was shot on 35mm and is displayed in the 1:66.1 aspect ratio, giving the film a tight, almost claustrophobic ambience. These photographical choices say something about the film. We’re stuck in the school with the characters; at times we feel welcomed, other times trapped. The overall look of The Beguiled (in terms of cinematography, production design, and costumes) will certainly rank among the year’s best.
To beguile is to lead by deception; to influence by trickery and flattery. For nearly all the film, it’s never fully clear who the beguiled is. Is John being tricked by the women, are the women being duped by the soldier, or is everyone too scared to speak freely? Is John a guest, or a prisoner? A hinderance, or a help? Coppola keeps these answers from us, until they are revealed. And even then, we’re left to wonder. A-
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