There's something to be said about films that can balance subtlety with good entertainment, as long as it's far from here.
There’s a small scene in Sofia Coppola’s latest, The Beguiled, which sees Colin Farrell’s Corporeal John McBurney splutteringly outraged about the amputation of his leg at the hands of his carers, the sparse group of girls and women at Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies. “I’d rather be dead than be a man without a leg,” he wails, swinging a stolen revolver around and sandbagging the women into a corner. Castration anxiety, so apparently prevalent in the Freudian-marked unconscious of patriarchal culture, in its emasculatory sense, is nowhere more rampant than Coppola’s means of exploring the female psyche, and her perplexing ascertainment of both its danger and fragility reigns absolute in her latest. Honestly, it sounds like one of the most interesting explorations of gender and sexuality of recent years, and its win for Coppola as Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival this year makes it a difficult expectation to argue with. Such a shame, then, that it’s no more interesting than it is enjoyable, and no more bearable than it is stale.
From its opening, it’s clear that we’re in the hands of something radically dazzling, the opening shots which cinematographer Philippe le Sourd flecks with dizzying lens flare and a gauzy soft colour palette. Radical or not, however, once Farrell’s McBurney is brought to the safety of the Miss Martha’s mansion, all its stylistic shimmer quickly fades to the plot’s inconsequential greyscale.
As McBurney takes up his temporary and, allegedly, unwelcome residence in the mansion’s music room, the house is sent into disarray as the women fight for his affections under the guise of disregard. Nicole Kidman’s Miss Farnsworth is sublime, although with a somewhat less than stable southern drawl, whilst Coppola regular Kirsten Dunst plays the lovelorn Miss Morrow on top form. But it is Elle Fanning as the coy Alicia that the film really relishes. There’s not much to be said about the film’s subtlety, other than that’s all it really has on offer, but Fanning takes it in her stride and coaxes something resembling feeling and fervour into an otherwise drab 94 minutes. More of her for next time, please.
Boring movies are usually the longest. Still, this is a humdrum of a movie, and I am only thankful that the usual rule does not apply here. As the credits rolled in the screening I sat hunched over in, one of the three elderly women in front of me turned to the others to loudly whisper ‘well that was a bit of rubbish’, and I don’t think I could have summed it up better myself. So, Sofia Coppola’s latest, there you have it: a bit of rubbish. I don’t think my own words would have worked out so tame.
The Beguiled (2017), directed by Sofia Coppola, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures International. Certificate 15.