THE BEGUILED is a refreshingly old-fashioned film. Sofia Coppola’s stylishly erotic take on Thomas P. Culinan’s novel, A Painted Devil features lurid storytelling and period drama that make the film feel like the kind of movie that our parents’ generation would have talked about in hushed whispers. It’s appropriate as the novel was adapted once before by Don Siegel, and featured Clint Eastwood as the wounded Union Soldier who is taken in at an all girls’ boarding school.
Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) is wounded in the backwoods of Virginia. When Amy (Ooona Laurence) discovers the soldier, she brings him back to the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies. There, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) nurse McBurney back to health, but it isn’t long before the mere presence of a man begins to incite rivalries and jealousy as the teachers as well as their students begin to slyly fight for the attention of the soldier as he (maybe) unknowingly plays them against one another
THE BEGUILED has a pulpy, sensational quality about it and a sly sense of humor that prevents the film from ever coming across as too pretentious. The period costuming brings to mind Merchant Ivory period pieces from the ‘90s, but the film strangely enough has one foot in exploitation cinema, which prevents it from ever falling into dull melodrama. It’s both classy and trashy and for all the unpleasantness that occurs, is a lot of fun.
The film features a tension not unlike that of a horror film, except the audience isn’t waiting for a big scare, or for someone to get killed…they’re waiting for someone to fuck. The simmering sexuality keeps the audience on the edge of its seat for the lean 94-minute runtime. THE BEGUILED doubles down on it’s horror influenced elements in the third act with some wince inducing gore that sets up the final moments of the film. The way the situations play out, particularly around the dinner table with the women competing for the attention of McBurney, comes across like a dark, Civil War era sitcom in the best possible way. The humorous ways the ladies of the house casually throw shade at one another as they are trying to impress McBurney provides some big laughs with subtle insults and expressive looks. It works two-fold, both easing the tension and building upon it. The theme of repressed sexuality is undeniable. It’s not the presence of a man that drives these women to extreme measures, it’s that they’ve been taught for so long that sexuality is something nasty to be ashamed of that drives them mad.
Working with director of photography Philippe Le Sourd, Coppola’s film features a hazy aesthetic, with thick rays of sunshine lighting the plantation that recalls the ‘70s output of Jess Franco, as well the impressive BDSM-tinged DUKE OF BURGUNDY from a few years back. The sequences with the house with minimalist lighting via candlelight brings to mind Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON and provides an authentic atmosphere to the Civil War era home that the women occupy. There is also a impressively sly bit of sound design where cannons and gunfire can be heard off in the distance, subtly reminding the audience that the Civil War rages on while the repressed sexuality comes to a head within the seminary.
Nicole Kidman brings an exquisite understated sense of camp to her role as Miss Martha, delivering lines like “Bring me the anatomy book” with a dry sense of humor. Kirsten Dunst brings a Pollyanna-esque earnestness to the romantic Edwina and Elle Fanning brings a certain brashness to Alicia, one of the oldest students whom appears to have a little more knowledge in the sexual realm than most. Addison Riecke comes close to stealing the show as the wise beyond her years Marie who delivers some of the film’s funniest lines with an adorable smugness. Coppola brings out all these great performances with a stealth like prescision, the camera work never to obtrusive or flashy; THE BEGUILED features a more classic style.
Colin Farrell has aged quite nicely and is arguably the perfect foil for the ladies of the seminary. All rugged charm, he’s got an almost retro handsomeness about him that recalls leading men of a bygone era: he’s not perfect, his body isn’t jacked, and he carries a certain ruggedness about him that you don’t see in that many American actors. His rakish charm appealing to the audience as much to the other characters in the film. There is a leering quality to the way Coppola shoots Farrell as he tends to the chores around the house—including some gardening—as a way to pay back the women who saved his life. He chops wood, sharpens a hatchet and produces copious amounts of sweat as the girls—and the audience—gapes at him. Arguably this can be seen as comment of the loss of masculinity in the current generation where men appear to be more prone to whining about an all female screening of a kid’s flick than literally getting their hands dirty. Farrell brings a rakish charm to the snake in the grass McBurney who is playing the women against each other, either because he’s that dense or has a macabre sense of humor.
THE BEGUILED is wonderfully retro: a star-driven tale of lurid sexuality meant for grown ups. While its pulpy, art-house aesthetic may seem too foreign for some audiences, the a gallows sense of humor and tension is sure to appeal to moviegoers looking for more adult fare this summer season.