The Beguiled: Sex, Lies, and the Civil War

**** (out of 4)

In 1971, Dirty Harry director Don Siegel decided to helm the first movie adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel The Beguiled. From a simple premise – during the Civil War, a wounded Northern soldier named John McBurney is taken in by a group of Southern women, and neither party has had serious contact with the opposite sex in years – Siegel constructed a film that only feels more dated with each passing year. Clint Eastwood’s Corporal McBurney comes off as a saint-like man whose less savory actions – making out with middle-school girls, threatening to rape slaves – can all be forgiven with a few mea culpas. [1] Each of the women, moreover, falls neatly into one of the two reigning stereotypical depictions of female characters in film: the passive maiden or the evil temptress. Add in Siegel’s usage of a happy slave, and you’ve got a movie that promotes a blatantly false view of gender, race, and history.

Thankfully, Sofia Coppola’s refreshing remake of The Beguiled gets rid of all the aforementioned tropes. But more than that, it’s also darker than Siegel’s version, both literally and figuratively. Colin Farrell’s Corporal McBurney is no longer a humble, lovable Quaker but a manipulative seductor whose malice and lust recall the creepy, sex-starved Greek warriors in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. [2] The women (Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice, Oona Laurence, Emma Howard, Addison Riecke – all superb) are not hollow caricatures but people who possess legitimate yet unrealizable desires for love, companionship, and sex. When these various characters speak, they don’t launch into cheesy, melodramatic monologues but stick to terse, seemingly banal statements that nevertheless burst with desperate innuendo.  And the place at which all the action unfolds (“Ms. Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies”) has been transmogrified into a building whose clean Classical façade forms a striking contrast with the miles of surrounding undergrowth. Don Siegel’s film gives off a cringeworthily light vibe, but with her adjustments, Coppola has imbued The Beguiled with the sinister, decadent atmosphere its conflict and resolution require.

Coppola is a well-known and respected director, but with the possible exception of 2003’s Lost in Translation, her movies have never been universally admired. Granted, it’s not hard to see why: her films usually don’t have much plot, and she uses long takes with a stubbornness that can easily make 90 minutes feel like 150. Yet in The Beguiled, such a languid, aimless style perfectly captures the story’s themes. The seminary women, after all, live a life defined by an overarching sense of ennui. The Old South and its ideals – lush plantations, Southern belles and all – are about to be completely eradicated. Yet the women continue to dutifully push through lessons in French and etiquette, even as their chagrined expressions and the shadow-infested cinematography all point to an underlying dissatisfaction with their Vestal-Virgin act. The movie’s slow, melancholically reflective rhythm doesn’t offer much in terms of sustained suspense, but it works wonders as Coppola’s way of showing us just how much these women want more out of life, even as they lack the means to go about acting on their longing.

Some have pointed out that the subject matter of The Beguiled is very similar to that of Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, which tells the story of a group of teenage girls barred from leaving their house by their extremely religious mother. Such criticism, however, misses the important differences between the two films. In a way, The Virgin Suicides serves as a prequel to what goes on here. The girls in Suicides were powerless to stop their mother from shutting them up; they were hemmed in by societal mores and could do nothing about it. In The Beguiled, on the other hand, the women, as Coppola herself notes, eventually do find a way to “take charge.” They decide to directly take on Farrell’s character, a man who at some points recalls Simone de Beauvoir’s description of men as wannabe gods unwilling to acknowledge their animalistic frailty. And in the shock ending, the women succeed in fully asserting their dignity; they prevail over the demeaning worldview espoused by McBurney.

Even in such triumph, however, Coppola refuses to turn celebratory, and it’s this cautionary nuance that guarantees you’ll be thinking about this movie long after it’s over. Coppola never looks kindly on McBurney, but she leaves it to the viewer to determine whether the women’s actions towards him are truly proportional to the severity of his crimes. And even if the seminary women have good reason to do what they do, the open-ended final shot still suggests that they haven’t been able to dispel the sense of purposelessness in their lives. The road to equality, unfortunately, extends beyond one potentially justifiable victory over one manipulative man. The women in Suicides couldn’t assert themselves and so committed suicide; here, the women do assert themselves, only to find that that’s hardly a complete recipe for fulfillment. It’s a sobering vision of just how much work remains in store for these women before they can escape the restrictive fetters of their upbringing. And the worst part of it all is that, unlike the ideals of the Old South, the bitter mixture of victory and defeat that these women taste still can’t be called a relic of the past.

***

The Beguiled (2017)

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Colin Farrell

Running Time: 94 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for some sexuality.”

Produced by: Sofia Coppola, Youree Henley

Written and Directed by: Sofia Coppola. Based on Don Siegel’s 1971 film of the same name, which is in turn based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel of the same name.

***

[1] In one particularly telling shot, a recuperating Eastwood is shown lying on a bed surrounded by candles. He’s bathed in light in a way that quite literally makes him look like some kind of angel.

[2] It’s worth noting that Coppola never gives us an adulatory shot of Farrell surrounded by candles. Instead, he’s usually buried in shadows.