The ongoing Cannes Film Festival threw up an enchanting title in a year when one has been feeling famished for good cinema. Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled with an array of actors like Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst made a good watch the other day.
Set three years into the American Civil War in the mid-19th century, The Beguiled may draw comparisons with the unbeatable Gone With The Wind. Yes, unbeatable of course, but The Beguiled has the potential to put up a good fight.
And we see Coppola examining sexual tension and desire in times when men were scarce and yet the identity of a woman was intrinsically tied to a man. There also an attempt to examine gender roles and the dynamics of power in a very engaging but subtle manner.
This is so apparent when the superbly playing Colin Farrell appears as a wounded Union soldier, Colonel John McBurney (part of those states which opposed slavery and wanted to abolish it) in Virginia (one of the 11 states whose cotton plantation economy made it imperative to hold on to black bonded labour). As he lies faintish in the woods, one of the seven women in the Farnsworth Seminary, run by the strict Miss Martha (excellently played by Nicole Kidman), finds him and takes him in. Troubled by conflicting pulls of Christianity to help those in need and a sense of loyalty to her confederate fighting to retain slavery, Martha is also disturbed by the awakening of her sexual desires at the sight of a full-bodied man.
Based on Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel and the 1971 film adaptation starring Clint Eastwood, the movie also has Kirsten Dunst as Edwina, a schoolteacher, and Alicia (Elle Fanning), a student, whose initial suspicion about the colonel soon turns into one of attraction. There are several early scenes in the film that is hilarious, letting us take a peek into how the women begin to enhance their physical appearances into order to catch the soldier’s eye.
The Beguiled unfolds in the rundown seminary - a picture that underlines how deprived the women are, leading a cloistered life. It is only to be expected then that John’s arrival sends waves of shock and fear and, well, excited anticipation. Though the women would prefer the soldier to be gone soon - once his wound heals - they are also uneasy with the kind of longing that arises in them at the sight of rugged masculinity.
On the other hand, he is also aware of his precarious position. He is completely at the mercy of Martha and her girls, and in this delicate dance of changing power equation, Edwina lets herself get close to him - which leads to a fatally dramatic turn.
The Beguiled is beautifully layered, and Coppola has the ability to view the happenings in the seminary through a contrasting lens of past and present. The bursting sexuality has a very contemporary feel even as Martha has been training her women to be good homemakers. Soon, the institution turns into a lab where the innermost wants of the women are exposed. Yet, Coppola gives ample hints at the beginning that the relationship between the soldier and the women cannot last. And we see Martha, despite her moments of wavering -- torn as she is between her sexual urge and the need to see her girls safe in times as horrible as war -- exhibiting her steely resolve in the end.
While Coppola’s period detailing is impeccable, she steers her movie through a sense of modernity. There is something hauntingly contemporary in The Beguiled that has an almost mesmeric effect. Also because Coppola is well versed in the art of storytelling, and stays far away from gimmicks - something so many of our modern directors cannot do.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran has covered the Cannes Film Festival for over 25 years.)
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