Innocence is Only Skin Deep: “The Beguiled”

I am an ardent fan of Sofia Coppola. She has a unique, intuitive vision informed by the invisible (she tries to bring out, not the overt drama of a situation, but the tension that is lying beneath). Her latest movie, “The Beguiled”, is no exception. In its depiction of disturbed and violated feminity, all wrapped up in white ruffles, “The Beguiled” most closely resembles Peter Weir’s classic film-as-poetry, “Picnic at Hanging Rock”.

The original “Beguiled”, made in 1971 with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page, had the same plot–injured Yankee soldier is nursed back to health by the residents of a proper Southern girls’ school; mayhem ensues–but it was made as a Gothic thriller, focusing on big–if strange–emotions. Coppola restages her version as a delicate fable, using every bit of Spanish moss, French lace and piano music at her disposal to frame the desperate, if repressed, feelings of the women marooned at the school. Led by headmistress Nicole Kidman, these ladies are not discarded so much as deserted–they are all attractive, educated, and from wealthy families (albeit ones whose futures are in jeopardy);  their lives have been suspended for the duration of the war. Cannon fire rings out from the perimeters of their sanctuary: a slowly-decaying white mansion with an overgrown rose garden; it badly needs a man’s touch. That comes in the form of Colin Farrell, a handsome Irish immigrant who has taken money to serve as a soldier in a rich man’s place. We get the impression that Farrel is not a bad man, but he is an opportunist and easily led. One of the youngest students, a little girl in braids, finds him, badly wounded, in a forest on the edge of the school. Kidman, as well as spinster teacher Kirsten Dunst and nymphet sElle Fanning, all compete for his attention. When actual sex replaces seduction, things get grisly.

This movie is definitely not for everyone. If you crave action and are easily impatient, skip it. But if, like me, you’re a sucker for daguerreotypes, veiled expressions, and a deftly wielded ax–don’t ask–go see “The Beguiled” immediately. And don’t forget to try the mushrooms…


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