For as long as there has been cinema, there has been the femme fatale stalking the frame waiting for her next (male) victim.
It is a character type that has never really gone out of fashion, whether it be film noir of the 1950s or sleazy erotic thrillers of the ’80s and early ’90s. Even today, the success of films like Gone Girl demonstrate that the femme fatale still exerts a powerful hold on the popular imagination.
With a title as suggestive as The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s latest film presents itself as just another pulpy femme fatale romp (like Gone Girl, The Beguiled started its life as a trashy piece of popular fiction). But Sofia Coppola is no ordinary director. As she has demonstrated in her previous directorial outings, this auteur is not someone to take a straight-down-the-line approach to her subject matter. And with The Beguiled, an off-centre take on things is brought very much to the fore.
Like all things Coppola, it begins with the visuals. And what a feast she has provided for audiences here. Her fashion-shoot aesthetic – which has drawn criticism from those who believe that her interest in the look of things reveals her as an emotional lightweight – finds the perfect outlet in the period setting, the Civil War-era South, with its lush green landscapes and pristine white interiors and costumes.
Badly wounded and stranded from his platoon, Colin Farrell’s Union soldier John McBurney is rescued by a young girl wandering in the woods and is brought to the local school, peopled solely by the fairer sex, to be cared for. It is here, within the dignified neo-classical walls of the school, that this unexpected male presence works its strange magic on teachers and students alike, including Nicole Kidman’s prim and proper head mistress.
But just who is doing the beguiling here? In Coppola’s film, it is Farrell’s McBurney who has the women and girls in a spin, not the other way around. What we have here is, in fact, a homme fatale. Where once unrestrained female sexuality threatened to destroy a male innocent, we now have a turning of the tables, where the women find themselves at the mercy of an earthy, male physicality.
Coppola might be light on character (here, the characters are more types than fully-realised human beings), but she is heavy when it comes to atmosphere. And with The Beguiled, atmosphere is everything: the hothouse of sexual desire inside the school is matched by the teeming animal life that surrounds them. Like the school, with its weed-infested gardens, the women and girls are in a losing battle against their primal urges.
In The Beguiled, Coppola might well have found her true calling: costume drama. There is something very nineteenth century about her highly composed images in their demand to be savoured rather than merely ‘seen’; and in her economical approach to storytelling, where more is expressed through a look or a gesture than a well-turned out phrase.
Her still surfaces and sometimes blank characters hint at something deeper, a wildness caged inside, and it is this quality which really does spring The Beguiled into life. Chris Prindiville.
‘The Beguiled’ opens across Australia on July 13.
Check out the official trailer above.