The Beguiled ★★★½

[7]

In some respects, this is the echt Sofia Coppola film: it stands or falls entirely on its atmospherics. As it happens, Coppola is on point, successfully turning the screen into a vaporous hotbox of swamp steam, dark shade under the Spanish moss, and of course drifting smoke from battlegrounds that are kept out of sight but are never psychologically absent.

The Beguiled demonstrates Coppola's ambivalence about conventional plotting, which is all to the good. Somewhere hinted that this was where her thinking would lead her. To my eyes, The Bling Ring was a bit of a lateral move, but it served its purpose, clarifying how she could draw on a medium-sized canvas with a small cadre of performers. It was only with the story that she fumbled, mistaking a human interest story for the thin rail of a plot that she clearly needs. With The Beguiled, Coppola hits the right balance, in part because the question of narrative itself becomes a feminist issue. (Young women are cordoned off from "the action," sealed away in the woods, and "nothing happens" until a soldier comes onto the scene. Men act, women appear, or so we think.)

Much has been made of Nicole Kidman's annus mirabilis, but casting her as Martha, the head teacher, is not only ideal -- her porcelain features foreshadowing what the younger "dolls" will become in this sealed world -- but intertextual, a subtle callback to her role in The Others. Is any of this real? And once McBurney (Colin Farrell) has been brought into the ladies' realm, he can only assimilate just so far. Man, Yankee, Irish immigrant, and of course, injured -- he is the Other, his male prerogative overwhelmed.

As he awakens sexual feelings, not only in Martha but Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and Alicia (Elle Fanning), McBurney mistakes that prerogative as freedom of choice. He fails to see that he is less a man than an aura, a walking pheromone who courts only danger by acting out. This house is not cut to the measure of his desires. And as we see, it is by insisting on his bodily needs -- his manhood -- that he makes himself unimaginably vulnerable. He was much safer when he was nothing but a free-floating idea.