Vanity Fair writes a review of Nicole’s film The Beguiled which premiered today at Cannes!
Sofia Coppola’s Cannes competition entry is a trim and titillating tale of women in wartime./i>
As tends to happen in the second week of a film festival, Cannes had worn me down. Too many early mornings and late nights, too much bread and wine, too many ponderous political allegories—in the films and in real life, all the Croisette’s opulence alarmingly guarded by policemen carrying machine guns. I felt done, like I just wanted to go home and not watch a movie for a long time. But then came The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s competition entry premiering here on Wednesday, and, hallelujah, my spirit was renewed. Coppola has made a swift, gorgeous chamber thriller, an efficient and refreshingly straightforward film that crackles with wicked humor. It’s given this festival a delicious jolt of energy.
Which is a bit surprising, considering all the whispering I’d heard that the film—which will open in the States next month—was not one of Coppola’s best. I suppose I can see why some early viewers—who caught private screenings in Los Angeles or here in Cannes—didn’t take to it. The film is decidedly small in scale, and is largely devoid of Coppola’s signature rambling dreaminess. And the film’s plot has been seriously pared down from Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel, which was previously adapted into a 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood. (Which was slated to go to Cannes that year, until the film’s producers nixed that plan.) There’s not a ton in the film that’s likely to overwhelm, to bowl you over with one of those sensory Coppola waves, which may have alienated some viewers. But I love the spareness of Coppola’s interpretation, its curt but still expressive manner of speaking. It has snap and vigor where so many other Cannes entries this year have been leaden and overstuffed.
The Beguiled is probably Coppola’s most narrative film to date. The film tells a gnarly tale about the residents of a girls boarding school in Civil War Virginia, whose cloistered, uneasy existence is disrupted when the war arrives on their doorstep in the form of a wounded Union soldier played by Colin Farrell. His Killing of a Sacred Deer co-star Nicole Kidman plays Miss Martha, the proprietor of the white-columned rural school, with Kirsten Dunst as the lone teacher, Miss Edwina, and Elle Fanning and Oona Laurence among the few remaining students. The dynamic between Yankee soldier and Southern ladies is wary at first, but soon enough a sexual tension fills the house’s dim rooms as the film coils around its characters.
Coppola has never done a thriller before, and in The Beguiled she doesn’t seem all that interested in building suspense in any formal sense. At a trim 94 minutes, the film instead has a loony bluntness to it, scenes jutting into one another (minus a few old-school fades) as plot developments are introduced with a fast offhandedness. Despite the lack of any traditional foreboding, Coppola conjures up a heady mood, half-comical and half-sinister. There are moments in the film that I wish Coppola lingered on a bit longer, but for the most part I quite like The Beguiled’s clipped pace. It gives the film a kicky verve, its flinty little story arcing and dipping and then disappearing as quick as it came. It’s a compact piece of filmmaking, but is no less rich for it.
The cinematography, by Philippe Le Sourd, is downright stunning, though Coppola never preens over elaborate visuals. She employs a more still and staid aesthetic than she has before, giving the film the look of portraiture lit by candlelight. Which is just right. Too much feverish camerawork and billowing music, and The Beguiled’s canny mien becomes camp. Ryan Murphy gives us enough of that on TV. It’s much more satisfying, and more entertaining, to spend an hour and a half admiring the restrained, elegant sinews of Coppola’s film.
She’s served well by her actors. Kidman is arch and watchful, doing a lot with small lifts of an eyebrow or a pursing of lips. Her lilting Southern accent is a little wobbly, but otherwise she’s commanding and, in a few scenes, deviously funny. Kidman has always been good at playing up her imposing iciness to a point just shy of droll—she’s not making a joke of herself, but there’s a winking self-awareness rippling along her fine-boned edges. The true standout, though, is Dunst, who gives poor Miss Edwina a quiet dignity that rescues her from outright sad spinsterhood. Pinched and forlorn, Edwina is pitiable without being pathetic, a balancing act that Dunst—who’s just doing a lot of great work these days (let’s pray this project actually comes to fruition)—pulls off with understated aplomb.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film is that our heroes are white, well-to-do Southern women loyal to the Confederate cause. (The school’s slaves are said to have run off at some point.) They may not be making the policy or fighting the war, but they are certainly complicit in a terrible system to some extent. This gives The Beguiled a certain moral trickiness; it’s unclear who to fully root for. Maybe it doesn’t have to be anyone, though watching these women and girls, so strictly trained to be genteel, band together to ward off an invading man does have a righteous oomph to it. The Beguiled is mostly a high-end lark, but Coppola does poke at some feminist themes throughout—self-actualization under patriarchy being the most glaring. Whether or not the feminism of white Confederate sympathizers is feminism we want to be grappling with is a matter that I’m sure will be discussed when the film is released.
That thorniness aside, The Beguiled is a smart, tightly crafted pleasure. It’s sophisticated filmmaking in service of a tawdry plot, which is a welcome tone amid the festival’s particularly self-serious lineup this year—why not have a little fun along with the fanciness? I like Coppola in this mode, assured and full of humor and working with a real narrative. By the film’s exquisite—and rather haunting—final shot, Cannes felt newly abuzz. I sailed out of the theater, even if I was still exhausted.
You can find all of V.F.’s coverage from the Croisette—reviews, reports, photos, and more—at our Cannes hub.