There he is – the man you always dreamed would come and save you from this dull and tedious life. The dark-eyed stranger who looks just dangerous enough to steal you away and make you his, and just mysterious enough to stifle the suffocating southern heat that’s been dripping down your spine all summer long. Only he can rip you away from this predictable prison and put the butterflies back in your belly again, sprinkle the starry-eyed stamina back into your hardened heart. But unbeknownst to you, your special soldier is nothing but a snake in the tall grass. A monster lurking within the weeds. Every sly smile he slithers out acts as poison upon your soul, making you just a little bit weaker day by day. Lie by lie. Little do you know, you’ve welcomed the enemy into your home, and he’s stolen from you all of your power, not by force, but by suggestion.
In 1864 West Virginia, the Civil War enters the home of seven unsuspecting southern belles, and in turn these vengeful bitches show a coward soldier what real reprisal looks like.
It all starts when little Miss Amy wanders into the woods to find mushrooms for supper. Along her travels down the hazy tree-lined paths, she stumbles upon a Union soldier quietly crouching in the protective thicket like a damsel in distress, hiding from his military duties, and waiting to be rescued. Amy helps the man, now known as Colonel John McBurney, hobble back to her all girls boarding school, where she and the rest of the young ladies reluctantly open their doors to the man bearing the enemy’s colors. Eyes wide, pistols at the ready, the girls stand apprehensive, but their inherent inquisitive nature will prove to be their folly.
First the fantasy happens. The prim and proper pale white-linen girls give way to giggling, allow their long estranged curiosity to take flight, and develop sweet tender crushes on their most unwelcome houseguest. They let their southern hospitality do the talking – as well as their attire – tacking on feminine tools at an increasingly alarming rate, starting with tiny brooches pinned to collars and blossoming into full-blown colorful ball gowns at dinner and pearl earrings during daylight. The Union soldier’s presence is certainly making an impression on the lonely women in this stuffy and isolated house in the woods, but while the ladies are busy finding joy in their newfound distraction from the war waging outside their door, they’ll soon realize the one place in which they should have been weary of deceit is actually residing just beneath their noses. By then it’s too late. The Trojan horse has already moved inside.
Every single shot in The Beguiled is perfect. This movie is one giant photograph of war, painted in moving parts, tragically and beautifully illustrating the power struggle that comes in the form of romance and destruction. Darkly lit fading wooden rooms adorned with candles, hard-edged kill-or-be-killed Western mentality, soft billowy prudent silk and satin day dresses – this delightfully gothic little Southern noir gives cinema something we’ve always needed – a woman’s touch on life during wartime, in all its romantic glory, and with all of its quirky subtle manifestations.
Sofia Coppola understands that battle tactics are not just limited to trench warfare and surprise attacks while the opposition is sleeping. Sometimes successfully encroaching on enemy territory just means sliding into their ranks like a slippery spy, learning what makes each opponent tick, and using it against them to gain the upper hand. As easy as Colonel John McBurney is on the eyes, and as beautiful as the notion of him falling in love with these women in this quaint rustic fairytale appears to be, the fact is he’s nothing more than a missionary still on the clock. Nothing more than a paid assassin getting his money’s worth, and his rocks off in the process.
The Colonel uses romance as ammunition to infiltrate enemy territory. He’s just another soldier, only his techniques are different. Instead of brute muskets and sharp rapiers, his weaponry of choice is flirty banter. A handsome face and a firm grasp of the hand are his ambush tactics – he can render the enemy defenseless with a mere knowing glance. Playing the victim is his diversion, and gaining knowledge about the hosts who keep him is his way of learning how to properly tell each lady precisely what she wants to hear. Behind every action is a purpose, and this devilishly good looking specimen has been planning his manipulations since the moment he limped onto the premises. His presence has spread through this once peaceful household like a sickness, permeating the innocent hearts bound up in this seemingly naïve seminary since day one, sinning his way into their beds, and secretly ripping apart their once empowered unit from within. The girls may have given this serpent the benefit of the doubt in the beginning, allowing him to enter into their Garden of Eden free of preconceived notions at the start, but even angels will unleash their wrath upon those who commit atrocities in the face of kindness. Even good girls will seek revenge when their hearts are broken.
Just as the sound the booming cannons echo like thunder endlessly off in the distance, growing slightly closer and more unnerving with each passing twilight, so, too, does the threat of betrayal grow stronger the more that the women let this man into their hearts. The battle in this brilliant period piece isn’t taking place in the far away skirmishes of the blood-soaked battlefields, it’s happening here, in these stark Christian quarters and carefully locked rooms and tea kettle-clad dining arrangements – because the truth is, what happens behind the closed doors of this atrophied manor and how these girls treat their guest isn’t about right, it isn’t about wrong – it’s about power.