Eternality Tan
by Eternality Tan

1. Winner of Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival

After the nadir that was Sofia Coppola’s previous film, The Bling Ring (2013), winning Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year for The Beguiled was not just reassuring for fans of the esteemed director, but it proved that no matter how hard you fall, redemption is always around the corner.

Sofia Coppola became the first woman filmmaker to win the award since Soviet director Yuliya Solntseva nabbed it in 1961 for The Chronicle of Flaming Years. What a way to make it into the cinematic history books. The Beguiled is also Coppola’s sixth feature film since her 1999 feature debut, The Virgin Suicides. She’s of course best known for the Bill Murray-Scarlett Johansson vehicle, Lost in Translation (2003), one of the defining films made by a female director from the 2000s. 

2. Exceptional Ensemble Performance

Not unlike her previous films, Coppola worked with an ensemble cast of women, including the likes of Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning. Their performances are exceptional if also restrained, particularly Kidman and Dunst, who play Miss Martha, the headmistress, and Edwina, a teacher, of a Confederate girls’ seminary respectively.

Miss Martha is a woman of composure—her mannerisms convey an air of upper-class self-importance, though she is genuinely concerned for the five girls under her charge. Not one to show her feelings, Edwina is a quiet, distant and gracious person, assisting Miss Martha in the day-to-day activities. Collectively, this is a story of seven women and one man—which brings us to…

3. Undercurrent of Sexual Tension

The dashing Colin Farrell plays the heavily-injured Corporal McBurney, a Union soldier who is found by one of Miss Martha’s girls out to collect mushrooms. When the girl leads him back to the seminary to seek medical attention, everyone was shocked—here’s a man, an enemy, at their doorstep. Tended to primarily by Miss Martha, the Corporal is visited by Edwina and the other girls secretly.

Coppola sets the ticking clock in motion by introducing an undercurrent of sexual tension, served with seductive glances by Fanning’s character, Alicia, who’s beginning to discover her sexuality, whilst Miss Martha tries to suppress her own desires, and doing so very well. The seemingly frigid Edwina, whom the Corporal has taken a special liking, longs to go somewhere far away with him, but is afraid to show reciprocal affection. Despite being in a house of shelter, education and God, the mood is erotically-charged.

4. Intoxicating Southern Gothic Atmosphere

Only the second screen adaptation (the first was the 1971 film of the same name starring Clint Eastwood) of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel on the American Civil War, Coppola’s version is disquieting to experience, to the point that it occasionally teases to be a horror movie. Those who have seen Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others (2001), a mystery-horror period piece that coincidentally also stars Nicole Kidman in a house with children, might appreciate the similarities.

Craft-wise, the cinematography by The Grandmaster’s Philipe Le Sourd gives The Beguiled an intoxicating Southern Gothic atmosphere (the film is set in Virginia, but shot in Louisiana), with the school located away from civilisation in the woods, while the distant sounds of artillery fire remind everyone that war is uncomfortably close by. Coppola lingers her shots longer than usual, especially of the landscape—one filled with fog and silence. And in a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Barry Lyndon (1975), some of the night interior scenes are shot in candlelight, or so they seem.

5. Fascinating in Controversial Gender Politics

The Beguiled may be visually ravishing—or haunting, and the storytelling efficient (the film runs for a short 93 minutes), but it is the film’s exploration of gender politics that places it in the centre of debate and controversy. On the surface, Coppola’s work suggests a warped form of female agency and empowerment, and through the film, we see countless examples of this at play—there’s no fate any worse for a man fighting on the right side of history than to be a victim of women’s desires, jealousies and fears.

But to say that the film is a step in the right direction for women’s liberation is to ignore the larger historical context—that any reading of gender cannot be done exclusively without some conflation with race. That Coppola brazenly suggests the victors are self-righteous White supremacists, gender notwithstanding, is at best read as a revisionist fantasy. 

Watch director Sofia Coppola talk about The Beguiled: