When we think of seduction on screen, the first thing that comes to mind is the femme fatale of film noir. A beautiful woman whose existence threatens the stability of the rational world of man. The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s latest, owes a great deal to this noir tradition of the seductress, except this time, it is the rational world of woman that is threatened by the male seductor.
In the middle of the American civil war, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) has kept her young students safe in a secluded Virginian boarding school. They fill their days with farming, interspersed by French lessons in an attempt to maintain their cultured upbringing. Safe within the school’s boundries, Miss Martha and her charges’ only interaction with the world of men is through the occasional passing of Southern soldiers.
Their quiet life is disrupted by the arrival of Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Union soldier whom one of the girls finds injured in the woods while hunting for mushrooms. Instead of turning him over to the Confederate army, they decide to nurse him back to health before surrendering him. The women are smitten by the Corporal’s charms, disrupting their carefully constructed routine.
And what woman couldn’t help but be seduced by McBurney? Farrell’s performance is charming, and full of sad puppy dog eyes. His pleasing physique doesn’t hurt either. The women’s desire has been implanted in the image. Coppola’s camera enhances his seductive powers, lingering on his naked body, splintered the image into well-toned arms, legs and chest, as Miss Martha bathes him and dresses his wounds. Every frame is lush and inviting, full of the longing for a break in routine and a release from the daily humdrum of life.
And these desires are not as simple as those of the flesh. The Beguiled gives us a look at the complexity of women’s dreams and desires, and the influence of a male presence. It is not just the older girls and women in the house that are smitten by McBurney–it is the younger girls as well, although their attraction has nothing to do with sexual longing. For them, he is a father figure, someone who appreciates their childish games and interests. The very presence of a member of the opposite sex changes the dynamic of the group. It also gives McBurney great power over the women of the school.
Coppola has expertly navigated the rush of attractions, restrained by the etiquette of the mid-19th century. The Beguiled manages to maintain the period details and mannerisms while simultaneously being refreshingly modern. It builds slowly, a character study that plays more like a thriller. It’s difficult to not be drawn into the power struggle between McBurney, Miss Martha and her girls.