On this day in the year of our lord, Nicole Kidman, we must give thanks for the blessing that is The Beguiled.
A strange, saucy, surprisingly funny slice of Southern Gothic, Sofia Coppola’s new film remains very much in her wheelhouse, with some distinct twists.
Throughout her career she’s been dogged by accusations of nepotism (her father is legendary director of The Godfather, Francis Ford) and regurgitation.
As with any auteur director, Coppola has her predilections.
Her films tend to be languid and atmospheric, with a very specific focus on the ennui of young, blonde white women through a detached, occasionally voyeuristic lens.
Her first film, The Virgin Suicides, linked her up with muse Kirsten Dunst, who returns here, as she previously did in the deeply underrated Marie Antoinette.
The Beguiled is also the second time she has cast cinema’s current It-Waif, Elle Fanning.
She is likely best known, however, for Lost in Translation, a gorgeous film about loneliness and the melancholy of displacement.
That film struck big with audiences and critics alike, garnering a handful of Oscar nominations.
Her each subsequent film, however, has received the same criticism: it’s just the same film in a slightly different context.
Plenty of other major arthouse directors get the same thing, but there’s a distinct sexist tinge when it’s applied to Coppola.
Film history has seen the male psyche run through with a fine-toothed comb, but it’s as though a woman doing the same for her own gender is somehow less valid.
As such, it’s impossible to review The Beguiled without placing it within the broader context of Coppola’s work.
Adapted from the Thomas P. Cullinan book of the same name, it’s arguably her most traditional film.
A Civil War-era period piece, it’s the second adaptation of Cullinan’s novel following a 1971 version that starred Clint Eastwood.
That role is now occupied by Colin Farrell as John McBurney, an injured Union soldier who finds himself taken in at a girls school in Virginia.
The school, run by Martha Farnsworth (Kidman) with support from instructor Edwina Morrow (Dunst), is upended by this charming male presence.
The students and teachers alike begin to jostle for his attention and affection, until it becomes clear that his superficial charm conceals a primal, predatory energy.
The film’s lucid atmosphere – a Coppola trademark – turns lurid as the women’s collective sexual awakening becomes an enlightenment.
The women realise they hold a clumsy, newfound power over this male beast, a creature to be tamed and discarded.
Elle Fanning’s Alicia is a stealth highlight as she hilariously sets out to bang McBurney from the outset, but the movie belongs to the two more experienced actresses.
Dunst’s Edwina is a classic Coppola type, an intelligent, imaginative woman trapped out of place and time.
But Kidman is more or less queen here, in a year which has already seen some of her best work in Big Little Lies and Lion (she has three more major projects just around the corner, too).
Kidman’s performance is so delicate and knowing; she’s matriarchal, maternal and quietly menacing in equal measure.
Her Martha so clearly appreciates the mature company McBurney provides, but as soon as that presents as a threat, she turns on a dime.
There’s a dinner party scene towards the end of the film where everything comes to a head, and Kidman imbues taking a single bite of food with more latent meaning than most actresses would have been able to give to the entire role.
Coppola’s paring down of the story has come at the expense of racial themes, with the slave characters removed.
It’s hard to imagine wanting Sofia Coppola to tackle race, but the overwhelming whiteness of her oeuvre does reveal, to some extent, the limitations of her perspective.
Nevertheless, it’s the most explicit Coppola has ever been about the dynamics between women and men. It’s an utterly wicked film in the best possible sense; short, sweet, and swooning.
The Beguiled is out now in Australian cinemas.