Sofia Coppola has brought to Cannes a confident, simmering picture of sexual tension and anticipated violence. Not as knowingly cerebral as many of this year’s entries, it is instead pristine entertainment – at times silly, funny, tense. The dinner scenes, particularly, are a masterly evocation of assimilated proper manners and barely concealed sexual angst.
Set at a time of heightened prejudices during the American Civil War, a soldier (Colin Farrell) goes into all-female household and causes sexual tensions. Nicole Kidman offers up her usual glacial majesty as Martha Farnsworth, the head of a seemingly ad-hoc girls’ convent, and Farrell alternately charms and intimidates as the deserting Corporal John McBurney, who infiltrates the ladies’ asexual environment. The man’s appearance brings to the fore the latent ruptures just beneath the surface. His leg is lame and filled with shrapnel, just as a young girl finds him in the forest. Brought back to eerie, leafy mansion grounds, the Irish Yankee raises immediate suspicions from the all-female collective. He’s now deep in the Confederate territories, after all. Soon, the existence of a male in a religiously repressed household invites envious looks and unconstrained passions.
Kirsten Dunst is suitably reticent as French teacher Edwina, who the corporal seduces with promises of love and companionship, while Elle Fanning plays the provocateur – a sexually extroverted complement to the others’ prissiness. What starts as a male fantasy of universal adoration, however, soon descends into an ambiguous and perhaps accidental tale of gruesome reprisals. Coppola slowly, expertly depicts the corporal’s growing, devastating effect on the mineral household, and the build up to the first explicit moment of subversion is enthralling. Although the cleverly managed intrigue is lost in the third act, the silliness of Martha’s plotting and machinations continues to amuse. It would be cheap to say it is beguiling, but this is witty, absorbing filmmaking.
The Beguiled is released nationwide on 14th July 2017. Read our interview with director Sofia Coppola here.