Sofia Coppola (2017)
In The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s Southern Gothic thriller set in Virginia in 1864, Amy (Oona Laurence), a young southern girl in the woods looking for mushrooms, finds a half-dead Union soldier, who convinces her he is harmless and whom, for the sake of what she sees as Christian charity, she helps to shelter at her nearby school, the Farnsworth Academy. This is a boarding school for upper-class southern girls that persists in the war-torn countryside as an island of refined manners and aristocratic instruction in subjects like music and French. It is run by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) with her one remaining teacher, Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst, who also appeared in Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette). There are five students including Amy, one of whom, Alicia (Elle Fanning, who was in Coppola’s Somewhere), is a teenager on the verge of womanhood herself. All of the girls remain at the seminary because, we are told, they have nowhere else to go. As for the wounded soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), he encroaches on the peaceful isolation of this remote sorority like an unwelcome dose of reality. Though he cannot stand up or move under his own power, Ms. Farnsworth tells the wounded Yankee, “You are not a guest here. You are a most unwelcome visitor.”
Assuring the girls, and herself, that when the corporal is recovered they will turn him over to the local Confederate troops, Martha proceeds to tend to McBurney’s wounded leg, pulling pieces of shrapnel from it and sewing up the wound with household needle and thread, sterilizing it with brandy. As the soldier begins to mend, he reveals things about himself to the women and girls in the school, who despite their initial fear and disgust at housing a Yankee, are drawn to him—he is, after all, the only man around. He is simply a poor Irish immigrant, he tells them, who took money to take another man’s place in the draft and ran from battle when he had the chance. As McBurney continues to mend, it begins to appear less and less likely that the women will ever turn him over to the authorities, and the repressed Martha, the lonely Edwina, and the adolescent-hormonal Alicia entertain romantic notions about the unwelcome visitor who has become their guest, and the film takes a number of dangerous turns amid heightened sexual tensions.
Coppola won the Best Director award for this film at the Cannes Film Festival in May, before the film opened in the United States. It is a remake (something she has said she had never considered doing) of a 1971 film directed by Don Siegal and starring Clint Eastwood in the Farrell role—Siegal also directed Eastwood in Dirty Harry that same year. That original film also starred Geraldine Page in Kidman’s role, and Elizabeth Hartmann in Kirsten Dunst’s slot, and was based on a 1966 novel originally entitled A Painted Devil by Thomas Cullinan. Coppola’s effort, based on both the novel and on the earlier film, has come in for a good deal of criticism for the way that it strips the story of much of the complexity of its earlier incarnations, particularly the issues of race and class, as well as the milieu of the Civil War, that permeated the novel and its first film adaptation.
McBurney, for example, is completely apolitical, having joined the Union army merely for the money it netted him. He does not come anywhere near expressing a desire to rid the world of the execrable institution of slavery. The women of the seminary see the war mainly as something that has affected them personally—Amy’s brother has been killed in Tennessee, and McBurney is quick to tell her that he has never been near Tennessee. But the larger issues of the war are never touched on, and one of Coppola’s major changes from her sources is the elimination of the character of the slave girl Hallie (Mattie in the book), a decision for which some have charged her with engaging in the long Hollywood tradition of “whitewashing” history, to which her response has been, “That’s another movie.”
It is possible to read that response as a somewhat cavalier dismissal of those critics’ concerns. But in fact it does, I think clarify what Coppola intends with her movie. The fact is that for Coppola, this film could just have easily been set in a medieval convent in France during the Hundred Years’ War, where the nuns take in a wounded English knight. Or it could have been set in a galaxy far, far away on a planet inhabited solely by women onto which crashes an enemy Klingon warrior. The historical or physical setting is immaterial, so long as it is a place where, plausibly, this precise gendered situation may occur.
Perhaps this explains why the film, supposedly taking place in Virginia, was shot in Louisiana, which, though providing a beautiful background for cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, looks about as much like Virginia as it does Nebraska. But it’s the landscape of the mind that Coppola is interested in, not the physical time and place, so complaints about the film’s ahistoricity miss the point.
Siegel said of his 1971 film that it was mainly about “the basic desire of women to castrate men,” and his film, as well as the novel itself, have been seen as misogynist in their portrayals of women. But Siegal and Cullinan were both male, and writer-director Coppola brings a woman’s understanding to the psyches of her women characters. Kidman, Dunst and Fanning all give subtle portrayals of lonely and competitive women, held in check by a surface Southern gentility that masks internal struggles of cunning, jealousy and the pent-up desire suppressed by their long isolation from men that bubbles to the surface—and ultimately erupts—when a man is thrown into their midst.
Yet for all this, Dunst and Fannng manage to keep their characters sympathetic, and even Kidman, whose actions are most appalling, can be seen to be acting at least in part out of fear and a desire to protect her charges. Even Farrell, both beguiler and beguiled, comes across as sympathetic, or at least more so than Eastwood’s lecherous deserter in the earlier film.
The film being chiefly about interiority, is especially heavy on mood, and this is where Coppola is particularly in her element. The film seems to be shot through a lens of Vaseline, something like an Impressionist painting, as if humid mists are rising from the bayou, bathing each scene in a simmering heat reflecting the characters’ inner lives. Interiors are lit by candles so that much of the film is in a fuzzy half-light, ensuring that we cannot clearly see what is coming to the surface of perception. And the soundtrack is mostly silence in this film—an ominous silence that mutes the internal motivations of the characters, which can only be guessed by their faces and their actions.
So subtle is all of this, and so quiet the film’s atmosphere, that some viewers may be lulled into impatience or boredom, or find the film slow moving. I did not, but if you are looking for that great blockbuster summer action movie, skip The Beguiled and wait a few days for Spiderman. Three Tennysons for this one.