Probably the best thing about Sofia Coppola’s new film The Beguiled is the way she shoots Colin Farrell, who plays a Union soldier forced to convalesce at an isolated girls’ seminary hidden away in the woods of Virginia, as he lies against a pillow. Her camera is as thirsty for him as are the inhabitants of the school, who, after agreeing to take him in while he recovers from a wounded leg, begin to vie with each other for his affection. (He entertains simmering flirtations with the no-nonsense headmistress [Nicole Kidman], a lonely teacher [Kirsten Dunst], and a coquettish student [Elle Fanning], before all hell breaks loose.) The power dynamic between Farrell and the women shifts at different points over the course of the film, the title of which is deliberately coy. Is he a prisoner of the women or is he their manipulator? Who, exactly, is beguiled by whom?
They’re questions that the film raises, but somewhat half-heartedly so; it’s less successful when it tries to be psychological than when it tries to be atmospheric. Coppola has cited Polanski—Tess and The Fearless Vampire Killers—as an influence, though The Beguiled feels closer to something like Picnic at Hanging Rock, with its shots of adolescent girls in white dresses bathed by afternoon sun, idling away their afternoons in a secluded mansion that may as well be the edge of the world. Under other circumstances I would have been happy to idle in that world for hours. But instead Coppola keeps wrenching us back into a plot that she herself doesn’t seem to care much about, peopled with characters whose motives are less ambiguous than confused. For a second I wondered whether the film’s intergenerational rivalries might be an allegory for the competition of female actors in Hollywood, with the once-hot Kirsten Dunst now resentfully fighting a new crop of starlets like Elle Fanning for attention, but this theory doesn’t go very far.
At its core, the problem with The Beguiled is that it can’t find the right tone. Coppola, who in the past has shown an exquisite sensitivity to this most difficult aspect of filmmaking, seems to be off her game here. In spite of its Gothic-hothouse setting, the film feels cold and inert. In addition to being the plottiest movie Coppola has made to date it’s also the quietest: save for a few ambient music cues (courtesy of Phoenix) and some period songs there’s not much in the way of a soundtrack, and considering that Coppola is usually so imaginative and playful in her use of source music that absence feels conspicuous. It’s her restraint in exploring the texture of the world she has so meticulously set about building, however, that feels most disappointing. Coppola’s usual willingness to take detours, to linger over the details of her sets and costumes, to move her camera through the space of her locations, to record intimate and unscripted moments between her actors, has been jettisoned here in favor of an approach that feels almost Kubrickian in its inflexibility and rigorousness. It’s not an approach that works for her, and it makes for a film that's as stern and uninviting as an antebellum schoolmarm.