Director: Sofia Coppola
Writer: Sofia Coppola; based on A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan; remade from Don Siegel's 1971 The Beguiled
Cinematographer: Philippe Le Sourd
Producer: Youree Henley and Sofia Coppola
by Jon Cvack
This was the first film that made me realize the Left was facing a serious obstacle from liberal twitter. Sofia Coppola was derided for portraying the Civil War without including any black characters; excluding a black slave character from the original story on account of Sofia believing the character was underdeveloped and gratuitous. Thus even with seven strong female characters* within a feminist narrative the film was deemed inappropriate and flew far under the radar.
It was from checking out the bonus features that I learned The Beguiled is actually a remake of the 1971 film of the same name, starring Clint Eastwood; the difference being that Coppola shifted the perspective to that of the women. The story involves a young girl Amy (Oona Laurence) who’s wandering through the woods, looking for mushrooms and coming across Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) who’s been shot in the leg and on the precipice of death. Amy returns back to a beautiful plantation estate, where we meet Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) who runs it as a girl’s school.
All of the men have gone due to the war, and it’s here I want to pause to wonder how this can be considered whitewashing when it’s simply true to the era. The story is about a bunch of middle/upper middle class women that had their sense of morality tested by a man. The fact that they are white has nothing to do with anything other than being historically accurate to Civil War era class structure (however tragic). Critics shouldn’t disparage this film which integrates feminist ideas. They should demand future filmmakers create stories with a more diverse point of view that can properly tell those stories.
The school’s one teacher is Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) who teachers five younger girls, including the teen verging on adulthood, Alicia (Elle Fanning). Corporal John McBurney is an incredibly attractive man; not just a character who happens to be played by an attractive man. What makes the film so strong is Coppola’s willingness to show the women’s weakness; that just like men, they too can be seduced or attracted to another in a way that could completely break down their own sense of self-control or respectability. We’re never completely sure what McBurney’s exact intention is, whether he hopes to hide out at the house forever and take control, reinstating some type of patriarchal system, or whether he too is lonely and simply in need of companionship.
For the first half of the story we see the girls compete for his affection, then progressing as McBurney expresses his affection for Edwina, pronouncing his love and urging she come to his room one night. When she arrives she discovers him in bed with Alicia, leading her to push him down the stairs, further shattering his damaged leg, subsequently requiring amputation.
It’s here that the film achieves the greatest nuance, as nearly all of the characters spiral out of control - McBurney couldn’t overcome his cowardice or desire, Edwina couldn’t control her jealousy, and Martha couldn’t control her paranoia. Ultimately, we can never be sure that there was no other option with McBurney. For as much I’d like to believe Martha, I got the slightest hint that she in some ways wanted to punish him for choosing Edwina and destroyed her chance of escape.
When McBurney wakes up in terrible pain and freaks out over having lost a leg, it kind of makes sense that he would get wasted and that being liquored up could make him also paranoid about being held prisoner at the house, therefore grabbing a gun to protect himself. Then again, he clearly wanted to stay. Then again, he could have left with Edwina earlier, if not for going to bed with Alicia. As much as I’m sure some would like to paint Alicia as the victim (which by current law she is) the relationship is less weird given the period, giving me the impression there was very much a mutual attraction, as suggested in earlier scenes. When he finally decides to leave with Edwina it all seems fair, but then Martha’s own paranoia gets the best of her, convincing the youngest girl, Amy, who opened up the film to go and find the poisonous mushrooms to kill McBurney.
Even with that bursting suspense, the dinner scene, while pretty good, never reached the level I was expecting, as though the whole film was built for that moment, which ended all too quickly. I would have liked to see the overall structure flipped, in which the last third’s incredible tension and character development occurred earlier, even if spreading on throughout the film. It just felt like so much time was wasted, leaving far too little for the closing moments.
*NOTE: During Sundance I saw an interview where one of the female filmmakers criticized this phrase, as though it suggested all female characters need to be “strong” rather than possessing a broad spectrum of personality. I use “strong” to denote the depth and complexity of a character; that is, a strong character stands in contrast to a "weak" character who would be one with zero personality or presence, capable of being removed from the story without issue e. What’s known as the “lampshade.”
BELOW: Solid dinner scene (though not much else is available)
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