Beguiling, The Beguiled

Photo courtesy of Festival de Cannes

In Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, a wounded Union soldier finds refuge in an all-girl school in battered Virginia. Housed in Gothic gloom as the gunfire from the Civil War rages, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), all handsome and hairy, stirs up the nervous calm of this feminine sanctuary, waking up all sorts of dormant urges in the women who take care of him. In that mansion lorded over by headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) and teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), the longing turns dark, the adolescent hormones turns toxic, and the film progresses down the delicious path of black comedy and horror.

Cannes Film Festival premiered The Beguiled on Wednesday with Coppola and her blonde and glamorous ensemble on the red carpet. Besides Kidman and Dunst, the film also stars Elle Fanning as a corseted teenage girl unable to contain the excitement of having a runaway soldier under her roof. The festival this year has 19 films in the elite Competition, three of them by female directors: Naomi Kawase’s Radiance, Lynn Ramsay’s You Were Never Really There, and The Beguiled. In the festival’s 70-year history, only one woman won the coveted Palme d’Or: Jane Campion for The Piano. The three female filmmakers look set to mount a serious threat to the old guard this year.

Especially Coppola. Eleven years ago in the same theatre in Cannes, I witnessed the press’ earnest boos at the perceived folly of her light-headed Marie Antoinette biopic, with Dunst playing the infamous queen. This week, on the contrary, The Beguiled basks in glowing praise. Like her other films (The Virgin Suicides, Lost In Translation) Coppola creates a community of women who are forced to deal with a complex swell of unfamiliar emotions. This time, the tone tiptoes between black comedy, comical seduction and domestic horror. The Beguiled was a remake (of sorts) of the 1971 film by Don Siegel starring Clint Eastwood as the soldier and Geraldine Page as Martha — but here the rapt lighting of the American South finds a disturbing twist in the swirl of feminine desire and power, led by Kidman’s Martha and Dunst’s Edwina.

The whole film takes place in a Doric-columned girl school where all students have fled except a handful. Counting Martha and Edwina, they number seven, and each of them responds to the presence of the enemy soldier in the house with everything from awed disgust to giggling delight. Found in a nearby forest, Corporal McBurney is put in a room where the imperious Martha tends to his injuries, and the film finds wry comedy in the way each woman — young and not so young — take turns sneaking into the room to gaze at the fine creature stumbling into their world. Curiosity, desire and heartache — somehow the good soldier uncages them all in the bosoms of his prim hosts.

Farrell is charming, wicked and mad, in that order, as Corporal McBurney — in the original 1971 film, the story is told largely from his perspective. But here it’s the women who run the household: Kidman as the inscrutable Martha, Dunst as the melancholic Edwina, and Fanning as a daring schoolgirl who couldn’t care less about the consequences of her little adventure. Together, and along with four other young girls, they form a dreamy image of a female dominion cut off physically and emotionally from the raging war whose frightening sound punctuates their daily life, a dominion that they’ll preserve at all cost.

Atmospheric and bewitching, The Beguiled unleashes its women and compels them to keep the lid on Pandora’s Box. The film is a hit in Cannes and will soon charm its way to audiences elsewhere — including Thailand, where it sets to open later this year.