This week I went to the movies to see Sofia Coppola’s latest masterpiece, The Beguiled. For those of you not yet familiar with the movie: Set during the Civil War, The Beguiled tells the story of Martha Farnsworth’s girls school in Virginia, whose everyday world becomes out of joint when one of the students, Amy, picks up a wounded Union soldier by the name of Corporal John McBurney. Martha decides not to turn McBurney in until his leg is healed. Of course, a lone soldier attracts quite some attention in an all girls school, and Martha, her teacher Edwina, and the pupils come to fall for McBurney’s charms … which of course causes some jealousy among the women/girls, and which also causes a very dramatic turn of events … In the end, the viewer is not able to tell anymore who is seducing whom, who is betraying whom, and who is to blame about all of it.
The Beguiled is based on the novel of the same title by Thomas P. Cullinan from 1966. Although there was another movie adaption of it from 1971 (starring Clint Eastwood), Coppola claimed her movie was not supposed to be seen as a remake. I must confess I have neither read the book nor seen the first adaptation of it, but as far as I know, compared to the first movie, Coppola undertook a change of perspective from the Corporal to the women. I think this is why Coppola’s movie is oftentimes said to be a feminist take on the subject matter, of which more later …
I found myself baffled by the performance of the three female leading roles: Nicole Kidman is cast as headmistress Martha, Kirsten Dunst as teacher Edwina, and Elle Fanning as Alicia, a 17-year old (I think) student becoming infatuated with Corporal John McBurney. In my opinion, this is Kidman’s best performance since her depiction of Virginia Woolf in The Hours, and Dunst’s melancholy eyes are just perfect for conveying the yearnings of a young woman who finds herself sort of trapped in this girl school, isolated from further social connections.
I am generally a huge admirer of the aesthetics of Southern Gothic, and Coppola perfectly captures the essence of it. With regards to cinematography, it felt like every single shot was composed like a painting. The overall atmosphere created seemed almost fairy tale-like – especially in the opening scene, where we see Amy collecting mushrooms in the woods. You would have almost expected her to wear a red hooded cape!
Also, I found The Beguiled quite humorous – something that I think is new to Coppola’s movies. And although I caught myself laughing, I am not so sure whether humor is really what this film needed. Yet the movie is exaggerated in many aspects (it features a dramatic showdown with a pearl necklace shattering into pieces and a pompous chandelier falling from the ceiling, to name just one instance), so I guess some humour suits the movie just fine.
Just like with Coppola’s previous movies, isolation and intrusion are main themes. The movie also shows women in different stages of maturity, and how they accordingly cope with the challenges and temptations they face. Many reviews celebrated Coppola’s The Beguiled as feminist remake or adaptation, yet I’m not sure feminist is the right word to call it. Coppola may have shifted from a male gaze to a female gaze, but I do not think this suffices to make this movie a feminist one. After all, the women all easily fall for Corporal McBurney’s charms – even after it becomes clear that he has been fooling around with more than one of them. Yet at the same time the women of Miss Farnsworth’s school – feminist or not – are only human. And encountering a good-looking Corporal while having lived in isolation from the opposite sex for quite some time may just cause hormones to boil … What I think is important is that the movie provokes some discussion about sexual objectification. While the male gaze still dominates in most (though thankfully by no means all) Hollywood blockbusters and thus turns the woman into an object of sexual desire, Coppola turns the tables with The Beguiled. While Coppola’s movies – with the exception of Lost in Translation maybe – tend to cater to a predominantly female audience, I think her turning of the tables is the reason why it’s important for men to watch this movie, too. After all I wouldn’t label The Beguiled as feminist in its depiction of women per se, but rather in the impact the movie may have.
Well, we can’t avoid the elephant in the room: The Beguiled is set during the Civil War, a war that was about slavery, and yet all the viewer gets to know about that topic is that the slaves have long left Miss Farnsworth’s school. To no surprise, Coppola was accused of white-washing, for she removed from the film the only black character of the original book, a female slave. However, Coppola defends herself, basically saying that she couldn’t have done justice to this complex matter in a movie which she did not want to be about race in the first place. I think this is a tricky issue, and certainly something that should be discussed, yet I don’t feel equipped to pronounce an opinion on this myself, let alone judge Coppola’s intention. However, I can recommend an article or two worth reading about this dispute.
At last, I cannot deny I highly enjoyed watching The Beguiled and found the movie to be very intriguing – both with regards to the cinematography and the plot. It sparks a debate about multiple issues, so you better head from the cinema to a nice pub, grab a glass of wine or pint of beer and have a nice talk! If you have already seen the movie, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments down below!
~ Lisa v. D.