Sofia Coppola, "The Beguiled" and the Delicacy of Depravity

Since her stellar 1999 feature film debut, The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola has distinguished herself as a visionary and gifted auteur. Quite apart from the cinematic pedigree of her family, Coppola has established herself as a major director behind some of the best films of the 21st century (particularly 2003’s Lost in Translation).

Coppola’s sixth film, The Beguiled, is a Southern Gothic genre gem, based on a Civil War-set novel (and also a 1971 film version) about an all-girls school in Virginia that takes in a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell). The film follows headmistress Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) and their five corseted Confederate charges (the only pupils left after the others fled the war torn region) as they tend to the wounded man. Sexual tension rises, rivalries develop, chandeliers come crashing down and the initially innocent novelty of having a real-life Union soldier as a houseguest inevitably becomes problematic.

Though The Beguiled feels initially like something new for Coppola (and in many ways it is), the film has definite resonances, both thematically and stylistically, with the director’s prior work.

One of the ideas Coppola often explores is the intersection of innocence and danger, the ways that bourgeois “play” often flirts with transgression and rebellion. Coppola’s characters are often women or girls who lead comfortable, sheltered, upper middle class lives. They are privileged and yet existentially frustrated. The Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides are “imprisoned” in a suburban home but curious about the world beyond (chiefly boys). Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) of Lost in Translation is searching for meaning as a celebrity photographer’s wife on vacation in Tokyo. The Southern California teenagers of The Bling Ring (2013) are bored in the safety of Agoura Hills suburbia and decide to rob celebrity homes to spice things up.

In the case of The Beguiled, the demure southern belles of Miss Farnsworth’s school are more than intrigued by the danger of inviting a wounded enemy soldier to convalesce within their plantation. With his Irish accent, rugged charm and soldierly stature, corporal John McBurney is an exotic guest. That he is in enemy territory and might at any moment become violent only adds to the allure.

A notable feature of The Beguiled is that is action occurs almost entirely within the luxurious plantation the girls call home. This is a common motif for Coppola: action that takes place mostly within enclosed (often gated) spaces that are comfortable, even opulent but nevertheless stifling. They are liminal, almost purgatorial dwellings which “protect” privileged young women but also provide occasional pressure valve escapes and opportunities to sample the delicacies of depravity. In The Virgin Suicides it is the sisters’ room in the Lisbon house. In Lost in Translation is it the Tokyo Park Hyatt. In Marie Antoinette (2006) is it the palace and gardens of Versailles. In Somewhere (2010) it is the Chateau Marmont, within which Elle Fanning (who also has a role in The Beguiled) tries to bond with her hard-partying celebrity dad (Stephen Dorff).

In each case, the “safe” domestic enclosure is presented as an almost fantasy-like dream space, where reality is suspended and the threats beyond the gates are mostly kept at bay. This is most obvious in Marie Antoinette, where extravagant parties, opulent dinners and fountain/firework shows entertain Louis (Jason Schwartzman), Marie (Kirsten Dunst) and their court while a revolution brews and angry mobs protest outside. But this dynamic is also seen in The Beguiled, where the bloodshed of the Civil War and the brutal realities of slavery are mostly out of sight and mind (kept exoticized through a “lookout” telescope). The film’s haunting final shot, as well as the naturally lit ambience of the plantation’s ghostly locale amongst Spanish moss and thickly humid air, underscores the liminal suspension of life inside a mythologized bubble.

In Lost in Translation, the New York Bar of the Tokyo Park Hyatt serves as a (literal) place of suspended reality, floating in the clouds above a sprawling skyline, on the hotel’s 52nd floor. It is within this fantasy space that Charlotte and Bob (Bill Murray) find their connection, forging an emotional bond that flirts with taboo but from a position of privilege (whiskey sours and 5-star accommodations). Somewhere’s space of suspended reality is also a hotel: the Chateau Marmont, an oasis of glamour and pampered escape from the hectic grime of Hollywood, but itself a hub of all manner of debauchery. The celebrity homes and Paris Hilton’s closet in The Bling Ring function similarly: cushy consumer palaces spritzed with a healthy dose of danger.

What Coppola’s characters represent is the ease with which sin (a word we often soften by calling it rebellion or transgression) is toyed with as a delicate plaything among many playthings for the otherwise well-behaved and bourgeois. As polished and proper as the women in her films may appear, their depravity is never far off. Whether in 18th century French palaces, 20th century Virginia plantations or 21st century luxury hotels, the ennui of privilege and the isolating angst of comfort lead to dalliances with darkness.

One of the things I love about Sofia Coppola’s films is that they don’t sugarcoat the consequences of sin. For as beautiful and sometimes decadent as they are, there is always a sober, “morning after” gut-check as the characters come to terms with the daylight. This is often literally shown in terms of night and day.

In The Virgin Suicides, after Lex (Kirsten Dunst) and Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) are crowned prom queen and king, the teenage couple celebrate by escaping to the school's football field, where Lex loses her virginity. After they fall asleep, Trip leaves, and Lex is left alone on the cold, damp field. This "morning after" scene, an unforgettable blue-tinted shot of Lex's gaunt white face as she wakes up alone, is devastating. She picks up her heels, tiara, and tiredly stumbles off the football field in the milky morning light.

In Lost in Translation, Bob’s boozy one night stand with a lounge singer leads to a grave morning after, and the film’s iconic final scene is a classic “morning after” survey of the pre-dawn Tokyo streets, as Bob and Charlotte part ways and the transcendence of their  momentary connection ends.

In Marie Antoinette, the queen’s 21st birthday party is a three-day-long exercise in opulence: cake, macarons, gambling, dancing, costumes, fireworks, and ungodly amounts of champaign. Here, the “morning after” sequence captures the tussle-haired Antoinette in the golden dawn light, lying in her wrinkled satin gown amid the pruned grasses of her royal lawn. Then, to the solemn music of Squarepusher (a lonely song similar to one used in a forlorn moment in Lost in Translation), we see the queen secluded and hungover in her quarters, while servants roam the palace, picking up empty glasses, leftover gambling chips, and other messes from the extravagant night.

The plot of The Beguiled turns on what happens on two nights, both set off with memorable dinner table scenes. Both nights are followed by mornings where the tone is somber, haunted, spiritually hungover. The film’s final scene is itself a “morning after” moment, perhaps the most disturbing of any in Coppola’s filmography.

These scenes remind me of Paul’s language in Romans 13 of night and day, of walking “properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy,” casting off darkness and putting on light.

There is something powerful about seeing the stark contrast of the shadowy night and the clarifying day; something haunting about the imagery of broken chandeliers, shattered glass, muddied dresses and the boozy afterglow of sin. Coppola’s films manifest these contrasts with jarring grace, providing not on-the-nose moralizing but ambient, Ecclesiastes-style cinematic wisdom.