Sofia Coppola’s new film The Beguiled adds revisionist history into her masterful career.
When Ghostbusters was remade, last year, starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Kate McKinnon, many people asked why. The controversy was interesting, sort of, considering that few ever raise eyebrows when Hollywood reworks old blockbusters like Beauty and the Beast, Robocop, or Carrie to access a new generation provided the original demographics stay intact. As a selling point, the new
As a selling point, the new Ghostbusters was branded a “feminist-reimagining” when it gender-swapped the cast, which made as many people mad as it did happy, perhaps because the 1984 version wasn’t criminally machismo in comparison to, say, some of the other gems of Bill Murray’s early career. Some male viewers felt vulnerable when the major comedy was greenlit to star chicks – their domain has been under attack for some time now, and here come the feminists to take away their cinematic idols too, like so many commemorations to the Confederacy being demolished as of late. Is nothing sacred?
In The Beguiled, accomplished auteur Sofia Coppola pulls off perhaps the art-house equivalent of 2016’s Ghostbusters update. The major difference is that her feminist reimagining is of a movie few have seen or previously heard of: Don Siegel’s The Beguiled of 1971, starring Clint Eastwood as a wounded Union soldier recovering in a Confederate boarding school. While not overtly misogynistic, Siegel was a masculine master of low-budget thrillers, and helped further the genre’s violence levels into Tarantino territory. Eastwood was perhaps the single greatest vessel for this onslaught of gore in cinema, which, over time, has become more and more targeted at fourteen-year-old boys.
If Coppola isn’t changing the narrative, she is at least changing the discussion. The best-known female director in the United States, her career in film is an impressive collection of lightly structured pieces delving into often repressed emotionality. This makes her a likely candidate to be Siegel’s complete antipode – not to say that either is the ideal representative of current gender roles. It also means that, though the two movies are roughly similar in their narrative, one watches the first half of Siegel’s version as a prelude to violence, whereas in Coppola’s version, everything depends on the spoken and unspoken.
Irish heartthrob Colin Farrell plays the wounded Union solider this time, one Corporal McBurney, who is happened upon by Amy (Oona Lawrence) as she tramps through the girls’ school estate picking mushrooms. He is taken in by headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), who suds him down, removing layers which would ordinarily be saved until marriage in the nineteenth century. From there, McBurney is holed up in the living room, isolated from the women – so as not to be a distraction – until he heals, only to be visited once every five minutes by someone wanting a peek.
If Coppola isn’t changing the narrative, she’s at least changing the discussion
The partially decommissioned Virginia school has a disparate and near-symbolic range of girls entering womanhood – washing dishes and practicing French to the tune of bombshells in the distance. There are five of them, ranging from Amy at perhaps eight to Alicia (Elle Fanning) in her late teens, and, more importantly, the height of pubescence. Miss Martha watches over them with the help of Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) not much older than Alicia.
McBurney treats the girls as their age befits them. To Amy, his rescuer, he is paternal and simplistic – at one point beckoning her into his chamber to conspiratorially whisper “Don’t tell the others, but you’re my favorite.”
To Miss Martha, who deals with him the most and the most briskly, he is unguarded and solemn, the way parents in wartime would behave without the kids around. Edwina is the epitome of etiquette, a robustly naïve southern belle, and McBurney plays her suitor, charming yet distant, to the point that they seem on the cusp of marriage before spending any time alone together. Which would almost be the case were it not for Elle Fanning’s unwaveringly licentious Alicia, whose room Edwina catches the Corporal in.
This is the first shoe to drop in the movie, and from there, things rapidly devolve for Corporal McBurney and the women alike. Coppola’s best work comes in the moments when characters can’t or won’t say everything they need to, and yet the only thing omitted from the first half of the film would be what the women chalk up to their nineteenth-century Christian propriety. Both sides have their interests set straight – McBurney wants to heal up and leave and the girls mostly want to let him – and yet at no point in the movie there is room for the possibility that things could go right.
This is how I first had trouble watching. From where I sat, each event that unfolded felt like the natural course of the narrative when it instead should have been as jolting as the character’s whims would seem to make it. Perhaps the difficulty here lay in the plot’s ambiguous stakes. Death is clearly not anyone’s preferred end for the Corporal from the moment they start to save him, and yet nothing in the directing would assuage us to his safety. Trying to kill him, therefore, becomes not so much an act of defiance as simply the girls’ reluctant acceptance. It can even feel fated – such as when McBurney, having just been caught kissing Alicia, falls down a flight of stairs by his own accord.
After their houseguest’s betrayal, the women’s silently collective approach to him becomes mystifying. At one point or another, student and teacher alike were vying for the corporal’s favoritism, and yet their treatment of Alicia after he chooses her is neither envious nor particularly warm. Events unfold so fast that it’s difficult to tell who lays blame where – especially since McBurney is still in the house’s good graces enough to accompany Edwina to dinner the next night. Everyone stumbles into their ordained role of violence silently – fitting for Coppola’s oeuvre, but also beguiling, and perhaps not in an intended way. Elements of feminist redux are absolutely at play here, as the one male in the film is objectified and then used as a stimulus for a plot, but Coppola does a disservice to her seven women by not letting them define their intentions toward him and one another – allowing them, at times, to blend together.
The Beguiled won Coppola the award for Best Director at Cannes this year, and, from a straightforward perspective, it’s easy to see why. Nearly every shot is absolutely beautiful. The film, taking place almost entirely indoors, uses curtains and candlelight with dazzling effect, and the women are almost preternaturally proper in their gowns. It’s an early career highlight for Elle Fanning, and Nicole Kidman’s performance sets the pace and tone of the movie. Despite its interiority (besides distant rumblings, little would indicate a Civil War, and the one slave character from Siegel’s version was removed) it is a robust period piece, and the most thrilling and widely watchable of Coppola’s career.
Coppola does a disservice to her seven women by not letting them define their intentions toward one another
If the movie, which has gone on to be a great success, felt off to me, I have to concede that I was not the person it was made for. Films have long clued audiences in with the male gaze, but we have a much smaller cultural pretext for its feminine counterpart – unless, of course, you’re a straight woman, at which point Farrell’s role in the film as chick bait becomes obvious.
Ultimately, I may have also read too far into Coppola’s choices for adaptation to enjoy The Beguiled as it was meant to be seen, just like how looking for a modern feminist playbook in the new Ghostbusters would ruin both the movie and your mind. Sofia Coppola surely has a lot of thoughts about gender, but that’s not the point of her newest film. It’s important to remember when watching The Beguiled, that a “feminist retelling” is really far more than that. It’s also a telling.