The Beguiled.

Sofia Coppola won the Best Director prize at this year’s Cannes festival for The Beguiled, making her just the second woman ever to win that honor (which is sort of an ‘honorable mention’ next to the Palme d’Or, which has only gone to a woman once in 70 years) and I would expect making her a very likely nominee for the same Oscar category. The film didn’t quite live up to that kind of billing for me, but is still very good, a thought-provoking, moody, well-shot and extremely well-acted movie that suffers just slightly from a thin and not entirely credible plot.

The story takes place in 1863 at a Virginia ‘seminary’ for girls, really more of a boarding and finishing school, run by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) with help from teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), with five pupils remaining after others’ parents have pulled them out. The girls are also the school’s staff, as the slaves also fled the fighting in the area, with troops passing by the large estate that houses the school regularly over the course of the film’s 94 minutes. As the story opens, one of the youngest students finds Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded Union soldier unable to walk, and brings him back to the house, where Martha decides to take him in and help him recover from a bullet wound to his leg before turning him over to Confederate troops or even passing Union soldiers. The introduction of a male contaminant into the all-female household has some predictable results, as sexual tensions and internecine rivalries spring up between the women, with the younger girls all flirting or just plain acting silly while the oldest three – Martha, Edwina, and Alicia – show signs of real attraction to the convalescent, who, by the way, isn’t real keen to get back to the front himself. Of course, this can’t abide, and eventually the pot simmers over and someone gets hurt, which turns the movie from a genteel and often funny look at gender dynamics into a dark, psychological thriller that pits the Corporal against the women and flips the power balance back and forth in the last half-hour of the film.

The performances sell this movie more than the story does; I am no expert at spotting movie twists, but the moment the key element in the story’s resolution appeared on screen, I knew what Coppola was showing us. But the three main women and Farrell all deliver right-tail level performances in their roles, especially Kidman and Dunst, whose characters have more nuance than Fanning, who is just frighteningly seductive despite rarely doing anything beyond looking at McBurney or the camera. (It kills me that the voice of Mei from My Neighbor Totoro is now making sexy eyes in grown-up movies.) Martha is the head of the school and the house, a woman in control who confesses to the corporal how exhausted she is by the role and, I presume, by the lack of anyone else in whom she might confide. Her attraction to the patient is slower to build and more reluctant, while Edwina exposes herself as the more miserable character, one whose romantic innocence doesn’t line up with her worldly upbringing. Both Kidman and Dunst fill out the corners of these characters with little aspects like Kidman’s clipped speech or Dunst’s mournful, almost haggard expressions, communicating their attractions to McBurney almost entirely through non-verbal and still era-appropriate body language and gestures.

Farrell’s character is less nuanced – it becomes clear after a bit that he’s playing the women individually, altering his language and tone to flatter each of them, even the children who are just mesmerized by the presence of a man, but it’s only after the major plot event around the two-thirds mark that Farrell gets to do something more than turning on the charm. This character has been deeply affected by what he’s seen and suffered at the front, but none of that surfaces until it’s provoked. Between In Bruges, The Lobster, and now The Beguiled, Farrell’s certainly shown remarkable acting prowess along with a willingness to take on some unconventional roles.

The Beguiled is also remarkable to look at, with lush sets and hazy, dark lighting that accentuates the moody nature of the script and its characters. The house is dim in the daytime and forbidding at night, while the characters are often surrounded by a slight fog or smoke that might be coming from nearby battles (we frequently hear gun and cannon fire in the distance). There are some exceptional close shots showing detail in the dresses and jewelry worn by the women, as well as some tremendous shots outside the house in the garden and the nearby forest. The two large scenes at the dinner table are incredibly evocative between the candlelight, the details of the table itself – even something as simple as one of the girls pouring wine from a decanter – and the visual transformation of the girls as they all get dressed up to impress their guest.

The story itself is based on a novel (originally titled A Painted Devil) by Thomas Cullinan and was previously filmed in 1971, and while Coppola has made a film that puts the women more at the center of the story, the plot remains a little thin. I mentioned the predictable ending above, and there’s also a gun that disappears and suddenly reappears as needed in a different character’s possession later in the film, with no explanation of how that happened other than that it was necessary for the plot. Edwina’s actions in the final third of the film also seem to come out of nowhere, or at least to be incongruous with what happened before in a way that I don’t think gives her character enough emotional consistency to seem real.

The Beguiled works because of the performances and the visual style, enough that I’d recommend it if you can enjoy a movie that brings you something beyond plot. If your tastes in movies are story-driven, this one just didn’t hold me; it feels like a short story stretched into 94 minutes rather than a novel condensed into that window. It lurches too much from A to B to C for me to give it a full recommendation, perhaps a result of my own obsession with plot constructions in literature, so that I left feeling like I would praise the actors involved for weeks but could give the entire plot with spoilers on one side of a 3×5 index card.