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Sofia Coppola triumphs with The Beguiled, a suspenseful Civil War revenge comedy

You’d best not mess with the ladies.

Nicole Kidman in The Beguiled
Nicole Kidman in The Beguiled
Focus Features
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The Beguiled masquerades as a Southern Gothic tale, with all the requisite grotesquerie. But beneath its frilly, corseted bodice, it’s a stone-cold revenge fantasy, laced with a potent cocktail of toxic comedy and pungent desire.

The film’s fixation on revenge means it feels considerably tighter and simpler than its marketing might have led you to believe. This isn’t the wild, extravagant romp of director Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, nor does it lean so plainly on the hormonal teenage angst of The Virgin Suicides. Simple, irresistible desire is what drives revenge movies — desire for retribution, inexorably enacted. And The Beguiled is set at Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, a hotbed of sublimated desire and good breeding. (Following the film’s premiere at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Coppola became the second woman in Cannes history to win the Best Director award.)

In her adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s Civil War-set 1961 novel — on which a 1971 Don Siegel film, starring Clint Eastwood, was also based — Coppola turns Miss Martha’s Seminary into a secluded, mist-heavy wood between the worlds, populated by women rendered helpless by the Civil War and scarce resources to do anything but pray and wait it out.

In The Beguiled, women are frustrated at being left to flap in the wind like a lacy frock on a clothesline, while the boys go out to fight the real war. But society requires them to remain civilized, embroidering in the drawing room to the sound of booming cannon fire on the battlefield beyond the seminary’s gates. They’re reduced to praying for the soldiers, hiding their cow so nobody steals it, and trying to keep away from the gaze of the men who march by, lest they be tempted.

Years of that kind of thing can make you crazy, or it can be a clarifying force. In The Beguiled, much of the fun (and suspense) comes from trying to guess which is the case.

The Beguiled takes place late in the Civil War, when ennui has set in

The sister to The Beguiled in Coppola’s oeuvre is certainly The Virgin Suicides, another film about a house full of young women held captive for their own good (and in which Kirsten Dunst also starred). In that film, the girls are hungry for male interaction, partly because they want to have sex and partly because they’re just desperate for an outlet and an escape from their intense loneliness.

Those elements are in The Beguiled, for sure. But they’re best taken with the historical context in mind, and what the characters are experiencing from their secluded vantage point: the dismay of knowing their social order is disappearing, and the dreariness of living from day to day with nothing to do but keep at the embroidery, practice conjugating French verbs, maybe practice the violin.

The story picks up three years after the secession, when pigtailed Amy (Oona Laurence), gathering mushrooms in the Virginia woods, stumbles upon a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell). She brings him back to the sprawling house that’s home to the seminary and its headmistress, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman, in one of her four roles at Cannes this year).

Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell in The Beguiled
Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell in The Beguiled.
Focus Features

Most of the seminary’s students have gone home because of the war, but Edwina Morrow (a subdued Dunst) has stayed on as a teacher, and a cadre of other girls remains, stranded by the dangerous situation in their own hometowns across the war-torn South. The oldest of these girls is Alicia (Elle Fanning), a 19th-century version of Virgin Suicides’ Lux Lisbon (played by Dunst in that film), all flirtation and seduction.

The residents of the seminary first consider turning Cpl. McBurney over to soldiers — either his own or theirs — but appealing to “Christian charity,” they elect instead to bring him inside and tend to his wounded leg. Miss Martha puts him under with chloroform, then cleans the wound and stitches it up. And then, while he’s still out, she strips him down to his knickers and washes him off, pausing to take more than a few deep breaths.

All the women and girls are worried about him in the house, but when he wakes up, relations slowly improve between the affable McBurney and the women, particularly the oldest three: strong-willed, mature Miss Martha, quiet and dutiful Edwina, and precociously tantalizing Alicia, who all but winks at him the moment he sets eyes on her.

But it gradually becomes clear that McBurney (an Irishman fresh off the boat from Dublin who took a man’s place in the army for $300) fancies himself a charmer, and that he’s found himself in a rather ideal situation: surrounded by beautiful women and charming girls of all ages and personalities. And he’d rather not go back to the army anyway.

Naturally, he plays the field. Let’s just say it doesn’t end well.

In The Beguiled, Coppola plays with the look of the film to add to the story

Coppola again wields her talent for stylizing films to set up our expectations for The Beguiled. The Spanish moss and mist hangs heavily over the trees, as in a twisted fairy tale, the colors are a little washed out, and the edges of the frame are darkened slightly, all signifying a decaying Confederacy and its carefully tended social niceties, which Miss Martha is still trying so desperately to preserve.

Sofia Coppola with the cast of The Beguiled
Sofia Coppola with the cast of The Beguiled.
Focus Features

But this is a comedy — a dark one, but a comedy nonetheless, in which a candlelit dinner table becomes a minefield of dramatic irony. So lest we take things too seriously, Coppola employs a pink cursive script for the title card, embellished with flourishes and compressed slightly from both ends. It calls to mind a trashy and inconsequential romance novel, which, when punctuated with the film’s moments of violence, wounds, and blood, feels more hilarious than horrifying.

In fact, it’s the mashed up stylistic markers of The Beguiled that make it so effective, especially as they skitter across the revenge plot humming along beneath the surface. As a film, The Beguiled is thrilling, delicious, wicked fun. But there’s also something purely pleasurable — and no less cathartic in the 21st century than it might have been in the 19th — to see a cowardly man with far too much self-regard and far too few scruples get what he deserves.

The Beguiled premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 24 (this review was originally published during the festival) and opens in US theaters on June 23.

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