The Beguiled Director: Sofia Coppola
Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Colin Farrell
Distributor: Focus Features
Rated R | 94 Minutes
Release Date: June 23, 2017
Sofia Coppola‘s first short film, 1998’s Lick the Star, follows a clique of teenage girls led by Chloe, who is obsessed with V.C. Andrews’ novel, Flowers in the Attic. Chloe orchestrates a plan with her girl gang to “weaken” the boys they don’t like at their school by poisoning their lunches with arsenic. The 14-minute black and white 16mm short film shows early signs of Coppola’s fascination with the themes of isolation and identity, sexual awakening, and the trauma of adolescence.
Since then, Coppola has explored these ideas in the 18th, 20th, and 21st centuries with Marie Antoinette, The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Somewhere, and The Bling Ring. Now, the writer-director journeys to the 19th century with The Beguiled, a remake of the 1971 film of the same name, based on the 1966 Southern Gothic novel, A Painted Devil, by Thomas P. Cullinan.
The film unfolds in 1864 — three years into the Civil War — at a Southern girls’ boarding school in Virginia. Headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) keep the girls busy with prayer, lessons on etiquette, speaking French, and playing music. Their heavily ritualized lives are shaken up, however, when one of the girls, Amy (Oona Laurence), comes across a wounded Union soldier while picking mushrooms.
The soldier is Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), an Irish mercenary paid $300 to take another man’s place in the war. Amy brings McBurney back to the school where he meets the rest of the young ladies: the flirtatious Alicia (Elle Fanning), the Yankee-hating Jane (Angourie Rice), Emily (Emma Howard), and Marie (Addison Riecke). Initially, the women are hesitant to help the ailing soldier, but they — being the good Christians they are — allow McBurney to stay in the music room, under lock and key, so that his leg may heal before they turn him over to the Confederate Army.
The charming soldier’s presence creates a lot of tension — sexual and otherwise — throughout the house. The ladies put more effort into their dress and take turns sneaking into the corporal’s room to flirt. Alicia goes so far as to excuse herself from Bible study to give John a prayer book, but the real gift is the long passionate kiss she leaves on his lips. The repressed atmosphere of the school gives way to jealousy and deceit as the women begin to turn on one another. McBurney, meanwhile, sees an opportunity to gain the upper-hand in the situation and manipulates each woman, appealing to their individual desires. His objective is survival, but sins of the flesh have their own appeal.
The Beguiled is a Southern Gothic, with things bubbling under until they reach a boiling point and explode. That eruption comes when Edwina catches John having sex with Alicia in her bedroom. When McBurney attempts to explain the situation, Edwina pushes him off of her and he tumbles down the stairs, breaking his injured leg in the process. Miss Martha insists he will die of gangrene if they don’t amputate the leg, and with that comes the ominous line, “Edwina, bring me the anatomy book.”
Don Siegel, director of the ’71 adaptation, has said that The Beguiled deals with the themes of sex, violence, and vengeance, as well as “the basic desire of women to castrate men.” What’s interesting about Coppola’s version is that she takes a story traditionally told through the “male gaze” and re-frames it through her own. Told from a woman’s perspective, The Beguiled becomes a story not of male dread, but of women in isolation, where man is the threat.
In an ugly (male) world consumed by war, Miss Martha’s boarding school has become a refuge, a reminder of our civilized selves, where social etiquette is the law of the land. When McBurney arrives, those formalities — the girls’ ladylike gentility — fade away as the more animalistic aspects of human behavior are awakened. Coppola’s esoteric approach is interesting, but her narrow focus leads to an underwhelming narrative where everything you think will happen does happen, in the exact way you expect it to.
Stripping down the story, Coppola erases the book’s African-American slave character, Mattie (Hallie in the ’71 film), from the proceedings completely. The omission of black characters from a story set during the Civil War is problematic for numerous reasons, and the character’s absence hurts the film because she brings much-needed dimension (and perspective) to the story. Coppola has said that she didn’t want a slave character in the movie because the subject is an important one, and she didn’t want to brush over it lightly. A fair point, but complicating matters is the fact that Edwina is a free mixed-race teenager in the novel, portrayed as a white woman in both Siegel and Coppola’s films.
Also missing from this adaptation is Miss Martha’s backstory, in which we learn she had an incestuous relationship with her now deceased brother. That backstory informs Martha’s infatuation with John and explains her motivations in keeping him there. Oddly enough, in a movie directed by a woman where women are the focus, we learn very little about the female characters and what makes them tick. The focus is less about them and more about how they react to the presence of a man. In Cullinan’s novel, Mattie and Edwina are given first-person chapters that explore who they are and where they’ve come from. There’s none of that here.
The Beguiled is something of a mixed bag, but I can’t deny the phenomenal work of costume designer Stacey Battat, production designer Anne Ross, and director of photography Philippe Le Sourd, who give Coppola’s film an arthouse luster. Complimenting the beautiful visuals are some great performances from Kidman, Farrell, and Dunst who, despite playing underwritten characters, imbue them with pathos. Unfortunately, strong turns and beautiful composition aren’t enough to save this atmospheric thriller, which is way more atmospheric than it is thrilling.