Friday, 21 July 2017

The Beguiled

Sexual tension and dark emotions feed this simmering Gothic drama

Written by Jason Solomons

Fresh from its Cannes debut, Sofia Coppola’s drama of the sexes shimmers with the wooziness of a dream while socking you with the punch of a nightmare.

Set in the South in 1864, Colin Farrell is the Yankee soldier (with a thick Irish accent) found wounded in the Spanish-moss steeped woods by a young girl, who brings him back to the seminary for girls situated in a classic southern mansion. Film-Jul17-JasonSolomons-176

The school is run by Miss Martha, played with prim confidence and buttoned-down beauty by Nicole Kidman. There, Farrell’s soldier, McBurney, receives stitches to his leg wound before passing out. Recumbent on a day bed in the sun-dappled music room, he slowly recovers his strength.

The few girls remaining at the school giggle and titter at the presence of this man, crowding around the door whenever it’s open enough for them to peer in, to stare at this strange, dangerous creature in their midst. Miss Martha doesn’t turn him in to passing patrols of Southern Army who would whisk him away as a prisoner but she does tell him brusquely: ‘You are not a guest, but an unwelcome visitor.’

One suspects, however, that teacher Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) has more serious attractions to the soldier. Then there’s the flirtatious teen Alicia, excellently played by Elle Fanning. Coppola is very good at conveying the febrile qualities of this pack mentality and one thinks of her earlier film The Virgin Suicides, and also her most recent, The Bling Ring. But I was also reminded of a film such as Picnic At Hanging Rock, and even Carol Morley’s British curio The Falling.

Atmosphere and texture waft to the fore, buoyed by Phoenix’s haunting music (that’s the French band, to whose lead singer, Thomas Mars, Coppola is married), while the simmering tensions of the war outside – the rumble of cannon-fire provides a constant bass-note of dread – are reflected by the sexual tensions seething inside.

You could say this is feminist reworking of Clint Eastwood’s bloody 1971 version, but you’ll have to plumb the shifting ironies of the title – who’s beguiling whom, exactly? Coppola keeps it liquid and slippery, setting woman against woman, secret desire against forbidden longing and distant dreaming. Yet she also unites them against a common cause, powerful in their vengeance.

Certainly, the audience will be drawn in to this singular, sensual world. There are hints of southern Gothic, melodrama and even exploitation horror as the director toys with genres and expectations. This is a very strong picture, one of the best of the summer, gorgeous with detail yet fragile as lace, heavy with southern heat and violent with murky intentions.

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