7/05/2017

Vengeful Bitches Slay


The Beguiled
(USA, 93 min.)
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard
“What have you done to me, you vengeful bitches?!” cries Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) in a fit of rage. McBurney shrieks his words with a timbre so venomous that every male in the audience might cross his legs, wince, and grasp at his nether regions just to make sure that they’re still in the theatre. The male members of the audience, anyways.


That’s the effect that this hypnotic drama by Sofia (The Bling Ring) has on a viewer. The figurative castration on McBurney’s corpus by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), the prim and prudish matron of a girls’ seminary at a decrepit antebellum plantation is the least of it, though, when it comes to Coppola making viewers acutely aware of the dirty relationship between sex and power. Kidman leads a formidable group of restrained Southern dames in Coppola’s feminist revision of the novel and film of the same name, and The Beguiled is the boldest and most badass feminist film of the year.

One doesn’t need to have seen the original film directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page to appreciate the tautness of Coppola’s direction. The Beguiled hits theatres on the heels of Coppola’s well-deserved win for Best Director at this Cannes Film Festival and it’s a sweltering film full of come-hither gazes and repressed sexual heat that saturates Miss Martha’s plantation. (In a novel bit of casting, the interiors scenes were shot in the estate of Jennifer Coolidge, Stifler’s MILF extraordinaire from the American Pie movies.)

This brisk film gets audiences hot under the collar tout de suite as Coppola sets the stage for a plum battle of the sexes in the days following the Civil War. The air of repressed society doesn’t have much room to blow in the balloon before it pops, though, and as soon as one of Miss Martha’s students, Amy (Southpaw’s Oona Laurence), discovers the wounded corporal whilst plucking mushrooms in the neighbouring forest, out comes the needle. Amy brings McBurney back to the grand estate so that Miss Martha may dress his wounds and save him, and the man becomes the ultimate practicum for the etiquette lessons that Miss Martha and her fellow teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) teach their young ladies. Once the dirty, bloody, sweaty corporal is laid out on the sofa with his pant leg ripped up to his groin, the energy unleashes a flurry of hormones as the young women wonder what intentions this man—an enemy Confederate, no less—might be packing.

Hormones waft through the rooms as McBurney flirts with women at various stages of their sexuality. Miss Martha, a bit of a prig, is a true Southern belle and a seductresses par excellence as she uses moves from the upper deck—fine brandy, random French idioms—to remind the Confederate soldier of her higher order, but also to seem chic and exotic. The casting of Kidman and Farrell offers a smart contrast of the high and low as the poise and elegance of Kidman’s screen presence proves the perfect foil for Farrell’s dishevelled Romeo. After playing one of the best performances of his career as pot-bellied loner in The Lobster, Farrell is back in top form in this role that uses his persona as a rugged bad boy as a catalyst for trouble.

Edwina, on the other hand, is more insecure and unhappy at the seminary and all but throws herself at the Corporal, who cruelly sees the opportunity for manipulation and seduces her with dreams of escape while she—gasp!—offers scandalous hints of shoulder, much to Miss Martha’s disapproval. (Dunst is excellent in her performance of restrained desire, regret, and longing.) And then there are the girls. Ranging from children to young women, the innocents under Miss Martha’s care have no experience when it comes to men. The sheltered life they enjoy while the final stretches of the war carry on doesn’t afford many opportunities for contact. Particularly Alicia, played by a feisty Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon), is a troublemaker ready to blossom, and the Corporal can’t resist her. Giggles ensue and it soon seems that the enemy might actually be a leering pervert after all.

Miss Martha’s seminary, however, is no country for helpless southern belles. McBurney finds himself in a den that’s more akin to a coven than the antebellum B&B he hopes it to be. Kidman, a much different motherly figure here compared to her Oscar-nominated turn in Lion, is masterfully seductive as Miss Martha’s coldness creates a woman who is shrewd, calculating, and haughty. She’s fully empowered by her sense of privilege and superiority even though she’s completely oblivious to the fact that her dank stuffy plantation and white lace fixings make her a Miss Havisham of the South: a slightly off-kilter loony who clutches her pearls in a desperate attempt to cling to the way of that is officially at its end.

This postwar setting asks audiences why some attitudes change while others endure and Miss Martha’s insularity is ready to protect these girls while hormones summon a battle of the sexes.  The dark and brooding cinematography by Philippe Le Sourde hypnotises as it casts the spell of Miss Martha’s world through available light photography. The contrast of clean light and dank shadows makes the stuffy atmosphere of pant with repressed danger ready to erupt. A phenomenal sound design ensures that the bullets and cannon fire of the Civil War echo throughout the film, like little pops of madness that remind Miss Martha that the sexy Irishman in her home is, after all, fighting against the privileges she enjoys.

Coppola breathes new life into the stale air of the South as the stuffy and dim rooms of Miss Martha’s sweat with desire, grace, and restraint. The Beguiled unnervingly dissects gendered power dynamics as it reconsiders a story from the point of view of the women who find their world rocked by this one lusty man. The film culminates with two dinner scenes that offer dish upon dish of black comedy served with the mannerisms designed to mould girls into the perfect image of femininity, but laced with a subtle and darkly funny critique of gender waging a battle of their own. Slay, vengeful bitches, slay.

The Beguiled is now playing in theatres.