'The Beguiled' Reveals the Cracks in Our Imagined Selves

Sofia Coppola's latest film is all about the inevitable gap between who we are and who we claim to be.
'The Beguiled' Reveals the Cracks in Our Imagined Selves
Image: Courtesy Focus Features

The year is 1864. Somewhere in Virginia, a young girl walks through the woods, singing herself a sweetly imperfect melody. Viewers watch from behind as her small figure, head and shoulders framed by long brunette braids, bends, then bends again to collect mushrooms from the forest floor. The camera pans upward revealing tree branches arching and entwined, the vaults of a natural cathedral illuminated by the pale, even light of dusk. The girl walks unhurried down its aisle. The scene serves up a lush aesthetic world, stirring anticipation for what other visual delights await the viewer, even as it stirs anxiety for what awaits this forest wanderer.

The sight of a Union soldier propped up against a tree soon breaks the child’s reverie. A flicker of fear passes across both of their faces. Tension begins to ease as they grasp the common tool of social formalities and force an exceptional moment into following the script for making a new acquaintance. Miss Amy (Oona Laurence) and Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) introduce themselves: She is a student at a nearby girls’ school; he is a wounded runaway from a nearby battle.

Despite—or perhaps because of—his considerable charm, the Corporal comes across as only a little less vulnerable than the schoolgirl. He is, after all, bleeding profusely and hiding for fear of both the battlefield’s violence and the enemy’s capture. Guilelessly, Miss Amy assures him that the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies will take him in. Making their way toward the school, the hobbled man leans on the good graces and steady shoulders of the 12-year-old girl.

The Beguiled’s opening sequence is only the first of a series of compassionate and trusting interactions that lead to unsettling results. This artful and entertaining film meditates on the difference between how things appear and what they actually are. The action begins as a handful of Southern women nurse a wounded Union solider within the confines of their home. The man’s convalescence forces a series of difficult decisions about managing his presence, as well as when and how to ask him to leave. Ultimately, the matter of the Corporal’s exit incites crises of escalating intensity that drive the second half of the film toward a surprising resolution.

Director, screenwriter, and Cannes award winner Sofia Coppola’s dedication to sustaining a kind of visual enchantment is clear to the audience at once. So, too, is Coppola’s canny use of familiar character types to tell a story that hinges on hard-to-detect motives that lie within, like desire and dread. Coppola’s characters act on honorable impulses and risk trusting one another in the name of Christian virtues like charity, hospitality, mercy, and gratitude. Slowly, however, a space widens between the intentions they profess and the temptations which also shape their responses to one another. The theme of a duality between whom we tell ourselves we are and what our actions testify about us resonates throughout the narrative.

The Beguiled is a tale of people and circumstances being what they seem yet also far more. The same can be said of the movie’s genre identity: What is evidently a period melodrama also proves a dark thriller with a surprisingly keen sense of comedy. Its first hour packs in as many awkward exchanges, subtle innuendos, and knowing glances as any good comedy of manners. (Each of the three dinner scenes would do Jane Austen proud.) Coppola’s writing does an admirable job of making these genre transitions smoothly by tying them to the evolving situation of Farrell’s McBurney: The vulnerable convalescent transforms into a charming houseguest, and then into something far more complex.

McBurney’s transformation happens subtly but steadily, despite his physical incapacitation. Having been installed on the fainting couch of the Farnsworth Seminary’s music room, Corporal McBurney is subject to the ministrations of the six women living in the largely abandoned boarding school. Literally locked away and convalescing in the same spot for days, he entertains a parade of pale, pastel-clad women of different ages at his bedside. Each one furtively enters bearing some bit of news or help—water for a bath, soap for a shave, fresh bandages for his leg, even an unbidden kiss. The youngest piously slips him a prayer book, explaining that he’ll need it to make confession since he’s wounded and, by her estimation, likely to die very soon.

The repetition of this scenario is important: It highlights the constraints of McBurney’s situation. His knowledge of the school, the women in it, and their dispositions toward him are meted out to him in uneven portions during the visits he receives at all hours. Immobilized and locked into his room, his experience raises questions once again about appearances and realities: He is at once fussed-about patient, caged curiosity, charming bachelor, and enemy prisoner.

Meanwhile, each member in the trio of headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and restless ingénue Alicia (Elle Fanning) is very much whom she appears to be and more. The women compose a triangle that slowly takes shape around Corporal McBurney. Not quite a “love triangle” (it has more angles, and the romantic claims are shifting and indistinct), the rivalry arises as a byproduct of the desire that each one has for a male presence in her life.

McBurney faces both the opportunity and misfortune of having triggered these women’s longings. The opportunity, initially, is to stand simultaneously as a placeholder in their fantasies. His misfortune, in the end, is that of being only one man, incapable of satisfying any of the three women once reality takes hold. What might prove romantically inconvenient in another scenario is high stakes for this wounded deserter. McBurney, after all, needs to be liked by every member of the school, since any one of them could cut short his recovery or turn him over to the Confederate Army. Colin Farrell gives a deft performance that keeps us from easily settling the matter of whether the solider is a dangerous smooth-talker or likable victim of circumstance.

The Beguiled’s slow buildup of sexual tension ultimately morphs into crackling suspense as a result of the film’s steady insistence on the slipperiness of each character’s identity and the duality of each character’s circumstances—earnest or calculating, threatened or threatening, compassionate or vengeful. It’s a richer take on the “battle of the sexes” than usual: In the world Coppola has created, power and desire are reciprocal, but not symmetrical. The matter of who is most lethal to whom is settled only at the very end. In the meantime, it’s clear that power—to offer shelter or take prisoner, to incite desire or inspire fear, to heal or harm—takes many unstable forms, and none is exclusive to either gender.

There is plenty in The Beguiled for any viewer to chew on after they leave the theater. The way the film complicates our perspective on the characters’ motives, however, may be particularly interesting for Christian viewers. As leader of her seminary and example to her girls, Martha Farnsworth initially takes in her “most unwelcome guest” as an opportunity to practice “Christian compassion” and learn from getting to know the “other.”

Asked what they’ve learned from caring for McBurney, one student responds that our enemies are not who we imagine them to be. The film levels the charge that neither are we. We are rarely simply who we imagine ourselves to be, because we are not only our best selves—our servant selves, our generous selves, our brave selves—but also ourselves tempted by sin, warped by unmet desires, and hampered by our desire for control.

Easily mistaken for a fussy prestige film, Coppola’s The Beguiled proves far more than it initially appears. Especially lovely and entertaining, it tells a story about appearances, about shifting motives, and about those parts of ourselves that fall away or take over when the stakes get high.

Laura Kenna has a PhD in American studies, which she occasionally uses to write scholarly work and often uses to regale unsuspecting dinner guests. You can find more of her thoughts on popular media at www.remotepossibilitiesblog.com.

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'The Beguiled' Reveals the Cracks in Our Imagined Selves
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