Thoughts on The Beguiled
Even if you've only seen the trailer for The Beguiled you get the sense this film will scratch below the pristine surface for deeper and vulgar motivations. This is one of the great strengths or weaknesses characterized by the South and in particular Southern ladies. Being calm, pretty and poised on the outside even when everything is crumbling around you. Everything about your body and mind needs to be restrained and controlled. Flailing limbs and wandering minds will lead to disaster. The strength of the girls and women being portrayed on screen reminds even cynics of the power they hold.
This remake of the 1971 classic has the same dreamy aesthetic characterized by many Sofia Coppola films along with two of her favorite actresses. Shots of the exterior of the mansion surrounded by fog or smoke coupled with the sense of being in a different world and the nuanced use of body language are reminiscent of Marie Antoinette, another great movie of hers that I love.
This school for girls is trying desperately to keep life as normal as possible for the female pupils and the iron will of the headmistress is the only thing holding everything together. Everyone is hiding their desire and need to run away, shirk responsibilities and be free even if for a day. The pupils are growing up in a dying and decaying culture which will be wiped out along with their way of life whenever they leave. Here they live in purgatory between the two extremes of life during war. The conquering and the conquered.
A wounded Union soldier named Corporal McBurney, played by Colin Farrell, is discovered in the woods throwing everything off balance. The excuse of being a good Christian is used several times for taking him in and not having the foresight to know that he will eventually turn on them when no longer wanted. The girl who finds him, Amy, while in the woods hunting for mushrooms hasn't reached puberty and sees him as a father figure. He only needs to be marginally kind to win her over. She proclaims that he is her best friend before things start to go downhill.
Men are terrifying and exciting. Several times the girls want to greet or talk to soldiers but the headmistress says not to tempt them. She is the only who talks to any outsiders or men who pass by the gate or knock at the door to keep them safe in their bubble as long as possible. Most are confined to the house and grounds. Power dynamics are flipped several times throughout the film as the soldier starts out as a wounded prisoner, regains his strength becoming a contributor to the household and finally wanting to rule over everyone.
The different girls and women interact with the soldier based on their different stages of life. The pupil Alicia, Elle Fanning, is bored and craves excitement. She can barely stay awake or engaged in her lessons. The boldest of all the girls she kisses the soldier when he is sleeping while everyone else conducts the evening prayers. This act and her pervasive flirting leads to the main conflict in the film.
The teacher Edwina, played by Kirsten Dunst, is bored but driven by duty and very tightly wound taking much more persuasion to get her to stumble off the path. She has no soldier to pine for and little experience with men. When the headmistress is dressing the soldier's wounds she is skittish around him even while unconscious. When talking to him while he recovers she admits, with little prodding, leaving here is her greatest desire setting up the easiest con for the solider. Pretending he loves her and convincing her to run away with him is so painfully obvious and deceitful I couldn't help but cringe. But it works like a charm for this character. The quick kiss he gives her seals the deal as she waits for him at night with her preserved lace nightgown taken out of the box is quivering on top of her chest.
The headmistress Miss Martha, played by Nicole Kidman, finds calm in her routine and duty to care for the girls in her charge. The war is a pervasive threat that seeps in when least expected or wanted. Staying strong and brave for the girls is her main motivation with little thought towards herself. She lost someone in the war but keeps her feelings wrapped up tight as her corset. To woo the headmistress the soldier is very respectful and doesn't make any sort of moves to display attraction. The only time we see her start to succumb to his subtle charm is after dinner when they are saying good night. She leans towards him, only wavering a few inches, and straightens as she hears the girls carousing above her. This is all the temptation she will display for him.
I haven't see the original version, spoilers ahead!, so I don't know if this version deviated from the first. In this version he gets pushed down the stairs after being caught with Alicia by Edwina. Miss Martha has to make the decision to either let him bleed out from a broken leg or cut it off. She goes with the latter. After he wakes up from this surgery the veil of flattery is lifted and no one is treated nicely anymore. After threatening them collectively with the only gun in the house Edwina offers herself up as the prize he really wants. She martyrs herself to get what she wants and to keep him occupied.
Hidden beneath that thick layer of Southern hospitality he is poisoned before the night is over and they are held captive by him no longer. They are all resigned to their fate as they sew a cover over his corpse to lay out on the other side of their gate. Edwina is still visibly upset but can fake composure long enough to prove she is still loyal to the school. The final shot shows them outside on the porch waiting for something else to come and change their lives. It is coming. The end of the war is near.