If Marie Antoinette taught us anything about Sofia Coppola, it's that she has a penchant for anachronism in period pieces. That movie was obviously her most severe example; The Beguiled, Coppola's latest, is perhaps the most subtle.
Coppola is a truly unique talent, in that her films are more often than not a mixed bag -- always undeniably compelling, yet often leaving the viewer feeling as though there's something missing. There is always a feeling of incompleteness, and this is especially applicable with The Beguiled, which, I feel it important to warn you, ends in a way less overtly abrupt than simply anticlimactic. There's a particular lack of satisfaction when a movie ends and you find yourself thinking, Wait. That's it?
And yet, there are plenty of reasons to see this movie. You're a fan of Sofia Coppola in spite of her inconsistencies, say. You are a fan of the performers -- something easily applicable here many times over, with the likes of Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning all giving excellent performances. Or maybe, like me, you tend to lean in with majority-female casts, it happens so seldom. And this is a powerhouse cast.
Coppola and her cast alike are well versed in nuance here -- bringing far more depth to the script than it ever could have on the page. As it happens, this story based on a novel of the same name by Thomas Cullinan was made into a movie before, in 1971 -- starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. And Coppola makes a curious choice: unlike the previous tellings, this version of the story set three years into the Civil War features no slave characters -- or any black characters at all, for that matter. This gives The Beguiled something in common with the recent Hulu television adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale, having much to say about gender relations and zero to say about race, even though in both cases they referece a world in which racial issues are of paramount importance. For the setting of the Civil War, that's pretty obvious. Why completely whitewash that, of all things?
"The slaves have left," the younger girl says to the Union solder she stumbles upon out in the woods near her plantation, thereby giving a quick explanation for why this story has no black people in it. Coppola even makes sure the Union soldier doesn't even have an ideological viewpoint either way on the matter: he's from Dublin and joined the army for the money. But, here he is considered the enemy, yet the women of this girls' school in Virginia declare it their "Christian" duty to be charitable.
As the soldier, the only man in a building of five students and two teachers, is convalescing, there follows what, at its core, is a pretty typical soap opera about jealous lovers. To Coppola's credit, within that context, and looking beyond this film's glaring flaws, she offers some truly fresh takes on pretty old fashioned romantic scenarios and notions. She also populates her film with the kinds of multi-dimensional, strong female characters one would expect of her, and would expect of few male directors.
The first half or so of The Beguiled is rather slow but beautifully shot, with consistently gorgeous scenes to look upon. Like many of Coppola's films, it's a visual work of art. Her take on the Civil War as a backdrop for this kind of story is dubious at best, but she sure knows how to get your attention once it's vital to do so: the story takes a turn about halfway through that is truly riveting, and even turns the story into a pseudo-horror movie, in which those who might be seen as the villains move from character to character.
Now, I'm all for ambiguous endings when they are done right. But The Beguiled's ending is relatively straightforward. It just doesn't feel like an ending, and it leaves you wanting more in a way less intriguing than bemusing.