The Beguiled is set in 1864 Virginia, three years into the Civil War, but the movie doesn’t really take place there. Like most films from writer-director Sofia Coppola, this isn’t a depiction of a time and place as much as it is the evocation of a mood or temperament. Cannons can be heard off in the distance, but The Beguiled is more concerned with the sighs and whispers among the women and girls who are waiting out the war in a nearby boarding school.
The war intrudes in the form of John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded Union soldier whom little Amy (Oona Laurence) discovers in the woods and brings back to the school. The headmistress, Martha (Nicole Kidman), decides to treat his wounds before turning him in, and so he becomes a prisoner/patient of these women, one whose masculinity throws the house’s chemistry in disarray. The girls’ teacher, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), indulges in romantic fantasy about the better life a man like McBurney could offer, while Alicia (Elle Fanning), a student who can barely muster the energy to sit up in her chair, springs to flirtatious life. Even Martha, the prim and proper hostess/warden, falters a bit while giving the unconscious McBurney a sponge bath.
Farrell, meanwhile, plays McBurney as a bewildered, shell-shocked soldier who can’t believe his initial good fortune. His charm becomes his survival tool, a way of keeping out of a Confederate prison and away from the front lines in general. This is distinct from the 1971 version of The Beguiled, which was directed by Don Siegel and starred a wolfish Clint Eastwood in the part. Coppola’s film is less concerned about male threat and more interested in feminine desire.
The Beguiled, then, is an immersion into that desire, embodied by flowing muslin, flickering candlelight, and sleepy Spanish moss. It isn’t long before we realize that the school is a prison of sorts for the women as well as McBurney. Penned in by the fighting, they gaze toward a horizon besmirched with black smoke. When they look out their windows, the wavy glass warps their vision a bit, making the world outside seem even further away. Much of the desire in The Beguiled is sexual, but there is a broader yearning here as well: for companionship, on Martha’s part; for a different social state, on Edwina’s; for adulthood, on Alicia’s. McBurney’s arrival holds the promise of each of these things. The problem is, he can’t fulfill all of those promises at the same time.
When the women come to realize this—through a series of events I won’t give away—they turn first against each other, then against him. And The Beguiled transitions from psychological drama to psychological horror. This is new ground for Coppola, and she navigates it with ghoulish elegance and wit. Earlier in the film, the camera had focused on the embroidery the girls were learning; here it becomes part of a grisly visual motif, as the stitching of dresses is replaced by the stitching of wounds. (“Bring me the anatomy book,” Martha ominously intones.) An earlier dinner sequence, in which the girls dressed like opulent Easter eggs to impress their new guest, is echoed by a more sinister serving, one where their gowns take on a funereal pallor. Likewise, the candles that once lent the school a certain romanticism now become the centerpiece of the movie’s Southern Gothic aesthetic. The wan disaffection that had previously defined these women’s lives has curdled into something murderous.
The Beguiled observes all of this but doesn’t explain it. Coppola rarely bothers with context, exposition, or even with what is traditionally considered “character development.” (Instead, look to what her characters are eating or wearing to know how they’re feeling.) In many ways, Coppola’s is a cinema of myopia, concerned only with what is immediately in front of her young female subjects. There are limitations to this—the French Revolution taking place offscreen in Marie Antoinette, for instance, as well as the fact that The Beguiled seemingly takes place in an Antebellum South devoid of slavery. Yet there is also something enveloping about Coppola’s aesthetic focus, the way it makes us fully present for a particular, sensual instant.
The Beguiled isn’t about the Civil War, nor is it even about which woman in this boarding school might end up with John McBurney. Rather, The Beguiled is about a young woman putting a special bow in her hair or a headmistress splashing cold water on her face or a little girl picking some special mushrooms for dinner. Each of those little gestures carries great meaning in The Beguiled because Coppola puts us completely in each moment—to experience first and foremost, and maybe, after, to understand.