With The Swoony Pleasures Of 'The Beguiled,' Sofia Coppola Shows Us Something New In her previous work, director Sofia Coppola looked out from inside the bubble that wealth and privilege create. Her latest film grapples with a different — but related — form of isolation.
NPR logo With The Swoony Pleasures Of 'The Beguiled,' Sofia Coppola Shows Us Something New

Review

With The Swoony Pleasures Of 'The Beguiled,' Sofia Coppola Shows Us Something New

Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) puts one foot forward in The Beguiled. Ben Rothstein/Focus Features hide caption

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Ben Rothstein/Focus Features

Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) puts one foot forward in The Beguiled.

Ben Rothstein/Focus Features

Until The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola had exclusively made movies about rich people. But that's not the same thing as exclusively making movies for rich people. Drawing on her own upbringing in the cradle of Hollywood, Coppola spent the last two decades turning out formally radical, narratively slight riffs on what life is like inside the cocoon of wealth and privilege. That core has remained constant, whether her subject matter was Marie Antoinette or the Bling Ring gang of pampered L.A. kids who stole from celebrities because they felt like it.

But no matter how brilliantly one director can depict characters stuck in the kind of warped mindset that comes from having immediate access to everything, paying so much attention to them can rub the rest of the world the wrong way. 2010's Somewhere used its haunting rhythms to paint celeb life as corrosive and meaningless, but is that the kind of movie you wanted to watch at the tail end of a recession?

Coppola's sixth feature-length work is different from the others. And yet, in all the ways that matter, it is the same. A retelling of the Thomas Cullinan novel that inspired the 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle, The Beguiled is her first film not explicitly about wealth — although the Civil War-set romantic thriller still very much wrestles with the consequences of isolation in other forms. What the film most readily demonstrates is that Coppola had other tricks waiting up her sleeve this whole time: she can bring us deep within her subjects' lives, instead of just needle them from afar. Like the rugged trickster at its center, this movie makes its watchers swoon.

Right from the start, with the sun poking through a lush field devoid of humans, we know we are in a land of mystery. Here, a young woman named Amy (Oona Laurence, playing precociousness to the hilt) stumbles on John (Colin Farrell), a wounded Union soldier. (Farrell's Irish accent is easily explained by turning John into an immigrant who took another man's place in the army.) She helps him reach her Confederate all-girls school, as a child's instincts toward charity over conflict set in motion the deceptions and dirty deeds to follow.

Dropped into this world of pink and white dresses, with petticoats that skim the floor and engulf the neck, John spies an opportunity to turn up the already-sweltering heat to his advantage. With no Southern gentlemen rivals in sight, he puts his body-and-brogue combo to good use wooing every fair lass who nurses him back to health. That means flattering the distinguished matron (Nicole Kidman) just enough to keep her from alerting the soldiers to his presence; showering the lonely and soulful schoolteacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) with promises to sweep her away from all this war; and accepting with good cheer the nighttime smooches of flirtatious teenage student Carol (Elle Fanning).

The performers, some of them repeat players for Coppola, are in an old-fashioned actors' standoff. Dunst holds us in the palm of her hand with her vulnerability, while Fanning's note of budding sexuality turns adulthood into another man to conquer. Kidman wears a mask of authority that keeps us guessing; there's a scene where her character makes a gruesome medical decision, and it's a mark of her acting strength that we can't tell whether or not it's informed by personal jealousy.

You can always tell a good chamber piece by how much it invests you in the film's internal geography. Here, Coppola and her cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd suck us into the tiny world of this school (actually Jennifer Coolidge's house): the music room at the foot of the stairs where John rests, the girls' bedrooms at the top of the stairs, the dining room down the hall where so many of the loaded conversations unfold, and the invisible barriers separating them all. With sparse, natural lighting, every shot smolders. To simply look upon one another in this setting is to be engaged in something forbidden, and so we are always watching the women watching John, or John watching his effect on them. A wink, a smile, a smooch, an application of lipstick: Coppola often plays the luridness of this world for laughs, before things turn on a dime and darkness intercedes.

The original novel and film contained a slave character who didn't make Coppola's script. There's an argument to be made that it was irresponsible for her to excise the only black character from her Civil War movie remake. But the near-total removal of these characters from the political realities of the time winds up only helping the reimagined story: the core emotions are so tightly coiled that to add another layer of social commentary could have easily sprung them loose. Besides, Coppola, who won the Best Director prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, had no reason to overload. After making films about people with the means to go anywhere and do anything, she has finally taken that step herself.