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Sex and war are the two most exciting things that can happen to a human body. Neither is seen in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, but both lie just out of reach, their power informing every dark deed.
In the opening scenes, an injured Union soldier (Colin Farrell) is discovered on the grounds of a Virginia seminary, where a handful of women and girls are waiting out the war. With cannons firing in the near distance, Miss Martha the headmistress (Nicole Kidman) undresses the soldier’s unconscious body to tend to his wounds. She’s also tending to her own needs, pushing his towel down a bit lower than it needs to go. Meanwhile, Coppola’s camera acquiesces, staying trained on his sweaty, muscled body. She doesn’t show us the lady’s reaction because she doesn’t need to. Rarely has the female gaze been so persuasive.
The Beguiled is officially an adaptation, but really it’s a revolution. Coppola has taken a 1966 Southern gothic novel by John Cullinan (adapted into a 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood) and filtered it through a feminine sensibility, turning its monstrous revenge drama into a delicate comedy of manners. Martha brings the soldier, John McBurny, into their home out of Christian duty, but her thrill at having a man around keeps him there. As he recovers from his leg wound, he flirts with the tart and tawdry teen (Elle Fanning, growing up before our eyes); befriends the precious child who discovers him in the forest (Oona Laurence); and professes his undying love to the chaste schoolteacher (Kirsten Dunst).
Having an injured man in the house is their prom, an opportunity to wear fancy dresses, pinch their cheeks, and indulge the rumble in their loins that has either been long abandoned or not yet acknowledged. Of course, in their devout household, none can admit their feelings, leading to hilarious scenes of caged heat and double entendres. At dinner, the teen tells him of the dessert she has prepared in his honor. “I hope you like apple pie,” she winks. “You used my recipe, didn’t you?” the teacher interrupts, shooting daggers. The youngest, a child of no more than eight, chimes in. “I picked the apples,” she says, batting her tiny eyelashes at the handsome stranger.
As the polite soldier, Farrell is a prize worthy of such passive aggression. After a shave and a bath, the gruff, bearded Irishman is transformed into a young Elvis, and he achieves a greasy submissiveness that highlights the subversive power structures at play. With him confined to his bed for much of the first act, the girls feel brazen enough to act on their feelings, and McBurny leans into his objectification, gazing longingly at them from his sick bed and getting off on their physical dominance. Rarely has a simply-spoken “Yes, ma’am” felt so sexually potent.
It’s a dynamic situation, but while Coppola tantalizes effectively, the story itself has too much possibility and not enough follow-through. Many of the director’s films have been short on plot—Lost in Translation and Somewhere come to mind—but they also never promised any. After all those hidden glances and secret kisses, The Beguiled seems to be begging for some catharsis, an orgiastic outburst of violence or sex. Perhaps that’s the man in me talking, though. In this world, the finale comes too abruptly. Sure, it ends with a little death, but true to the film’s female gaze, there is no real climax, and we are left wanting just a little bit more.
The Beguiled opens Friday at E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row.