Cannes review: The Beguiled - straining at the seams with suppressed sexual passion

Colin Farrell squirms with delight under the female gaze in Sofia Coppola’s slice of feminist Southern Gothic

The Beguiled
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Director: Sofia Coppola
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Reicke
Running Time: 1 hr 34 mins

What could Sofia Coppola bring to Thomas Cullinan's A Painted Devil, a novel of sleepy southern Gothic, that Don Siegel had not already touched upon in his great 1971 adaptation? Well, Irishness for a start.

Colin Farrell replaces Clint Eastwood as the wounded Union soldier who sets an isolated southern boarding school into sexual flutters, and, speaking in his own accent, he reminds us how many first-generation immigrants got caught up in the US Civil War. Corporal John McBurney took another soldier’s place for $300 when he was “just off the boat”. He has no moral or personal investment in this conflict. Now he has an opportunity for fleshy gain.

We can mark that down as a sub-theme. Coppola’s aim is to reclaim the story for the female perspective. We begin with a student at the academy finding McBurney bleeding when she is out hunting for mushrooms. She brings him back and, after some frowning, Ms Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), the principal, stitches up his leg and sets him on the road to recovery.

Making various unconvincing excuses, she decides not to hand over McBurney to friendly Confederate forces. Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) takes a polite interest in their patient. Alicia (Elle Fanning), an older student, moves towards him in less ambiguous fashion.


Before you can say “biscuits and gravy”, the suppressed sexual passion is straining the bolts on the metaphorical pressure cooker. When McBurney enjoys his apple pie, everybody wants to take some credit for its creation. The women compete to come up with the most slippery rationalisation for keeping the enemy combatant within the neoclassical mansion.

The Beguiled is rare – indeed, close to unique – among Palme d'Or contenders in that it feels uncomfortably short. For well over an hour, the picture builds the sexual tension before unloading its juicy plot in a weirdly hurried closing 20 minutes.

The film cannot, however, be faulted for humid atmosphere and its commitment to queasy female camaraderie. The director made her name by studying a group of unsettled young women in the delicious Virgin Suicides. Here, the school forms a perplexing mass of the sundered and the mutually supportive. They all want a piece of McBurney. But what binds them together ultimately proves more important than what pushes them apart. Who knew there were feminist subtexts in Don Siegel movies? (Not him, I suspect.)

Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography revels in the grey light that comes off the swampy land. Farrell balances charm with opportunism. Kidman, Fanning and Dunst effectively convey three different flavours of sexual covetousness. It ends with a shot that almost redeems that peculiarly structured narrative. Flawed, but undeniably worthwhile.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist