Presented at the 70th Cannes Film Festival (2017), The Beguiled is an atmospheric thriller from the acclaimed writer and director Sofia Coppola who won the Best Director Award becoming the second woman to have ever won such award at the French kermesse (after Jane Campion, The Piano, 1993).
The story unfolds during the American Civil War, at a Southern girls’ boarding school where its sheltered young women take in an injured enemy soldier. As they provide refuge and tend to his wounds, the house is taken over with sexual tension and dangerous rivalries, and taboos are broken in an unexpected turn of events.
Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning are The Beguiled.
After cruising through the 18th, 20th and 21st centuries, director Sofia Coppola now navigates the 19th century with The Beguiled, for which she wrote the screenplay adaptation of the novel of the same name by Thomas Cullinan. Coppola is reunited with two of her favorite leading ladies, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning. These two stars of previous Coppola’s movies became fast friends. Dunst reveals: “Elle and I literally finish each other’s sentences. I found a soul mate” while Fanning says: “I love Kirsten. Some of the scenes were hard for us, because we couldn’t look at each other or we would start laughing!”. A per the other members of the cast, Colin Farrell, and Nicole Kidman, it was the first time under the direction of Sofia.
Intrigued by the way the story was told in the 1971 film The Beguiled, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman, and Jo Ann Harris, Coppola wanted to explore the theme of women isolated during the Civil War. In writing the screenplay adaptation, she went back to the book to tell the story from the female characters’ perspective. While there is tension throughout the story, Farrell gravitated to what he deems an “extraordinary” script because “it looks at how whatever innocence has been maintained in a time of war can be lost. It also explores how the more animalistic aspects of human behavior can be provoked, even when you’re not on the front lines. The violence of the human heart is a timeless theme, no matter what period a story takes place in.”
Dunst remarks “The story is Southern Gothic, with things bubbling under until they get to a boiling point and then an explosion happens. It’s not horror, but it feels like there is horror in it, with intensity and destruction, all made more compelling because this is happening among women. When Sofia told me about the idea a couple of years ago, my impression was that she was drawn to the subject matter of so many women together alone”.
Also, Nicole Kidman declared: “I thought it was exciting to work with a group of women and then put Colin in the equation. I was so happy to support Sofia as a female director, and I always thought that she made such atmospheric movies in such a signature style. That was the main thing which drew me to working with her.”
Fanning added “Besides working with Sofia again, this was a reason for me to be part of The Beguiled: the women hold the power in this story, even though it’s set during the Civil War. They get up, they work in the garden at a certain time. There’s prayer, playing music, French lessons, dinner, and bedtime. Until everything gets shaken up; they take in the wounded soldier, and selfishness sets in.”
Everyone on the cast had a little homework to do: the interactions between the man and these women are all about social etiquette. So, while Farrell had to work with an etiquette coach, several actresses were obliged to practice their accents, designated to specific states, for an hour daily. In particular, Nicole Kidman who was searching for the perfect voice for her “Miss Martha,” a very particular Southern accent, an accent that she tried to keep before and after takes. Coppola asked the younger actresses to write journals every day, specials ones since they had to be in-character, reflecting on their past, on the families that they were sent away from, as well as their present, at the school. The filmmaker also gave the quartet materials detailing what young women of their age would have experienced during the Civil War.
The brilliant Costume Designer, who helped Sofia in maintaining throughout the whole movie the most beautiful colors and scenography, is Stacey Battat. The cinematographer worked closely with Battat on the movie’s palette. As the story is set well over a decade before electrical lighting came into use, daylight is the main source of light supplemented by the use of candles, which would have been kept on hand and, occasionally, by modern studio lights: “When McBurney (Colin Farrell) first shows up, the world he’s coming into is softer, with more pastels. As he’s with the women longer things become darker, reflecting the mood of the film” the designer said.
Coppola’s preference, just like with her previous films, was to shoot at actual locations. So, she chose Madewood Plantation House, which people may recognize from its showcase in Beyoncé’s “Sorry” music video as part of her Lemonade. If the cast could step into history when surrounded by the props and locations, Battat’s department made it feel even more immediate for them with handmade costumes. Getting into the clothing helped everyone get into character. “Corsets every single day,” confided Fanning.
On the general story and her character, Kirsten said: “There is death in the story, but it’s also about how a person dies inside. I tried to give Edwina a big inner life, fill emotionally. Hers was a very different sensibility for me to play, and the opposite of who I am”.
A perfect palette of Colors, a stellar cast who doesn’t overcome the plot of the movie, a poetry between the story, the costumes and the actors, a profound respect for each other work and role, and a strong female presence: those, and others, are the ingredients which make “The Beguiled” a movie to be seen.