24 Jul 2017

The Beguiled: Another rumination on the insular, impenetrable world of wealthy white girlhood

3:37 pm on 24 July 2017

The Beguiled may be a detour for Sofia Coppola, but somehow all roads lead to the same place.


Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst in The Beguiled.

Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst in The Beguiled. Photo: NZ International Film Festival

When it comes to Sofia Coppola movies, you already know the deal: Women - young, white, wealthy and wan - working through the complexities of bourgeois girlhood before lush, feminine backdrops. Love it or hate it, it’s what she does.

For such a consistent director then, The Beguiled appears as something of a detour. A remake of the 1971 Clint Eastwood film of the same name - itself an adaptation of 1966 Southern Gothic novel A Painted Devil - it is Coppola’s most straightforward story to date. For once, those moody little girls have something to say.

Set at an isolated girls school in Virginia during the American Civil War, The Beguiled begins when one of the students happens upon a wounded Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), an Irish mercenary who has absconded from battle. As good Christians, the women and girls at the school decide to take him in until he has recovered - but remain unsure of what they will do with him when this time arrives.

The arrival of this handsome - and helpless - stranger is of course a source of great interest to the girls of the school who, along with uptight headmistress Ms Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and anxious, unhappy schoolteacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), quickly find themselves besotted with what seems to be the first man they’ve ever come across.

Surprisingly, considering the overall moodiness, for the bulk of the film this is played for laughs. McBurney knows he is hot property and, as a consummate opportunist, mines it for all its worth. It results in some hilarious moments of cattiness and competition. When things go wrong, as of course they do, it's darkly hilarious and there has hardly been a better moment on screen this year than that of a morose Nicole Kidman snapping “get me the anatomy book”.

Yet, for all its humour and playfulness, it’s also strangely light and insubstantial. With two thirds of the film dedicated to build up, one expects something momentous. But just as the tension finally breaks and things really get going, they wind down again. It’s almost as if something is missing.

As it happens, something is missing. Apart from a strange, brief piece of exposition early on in the script, there is more or less no acknowledgement  - be it verbal, visual or otherwise - of the slavery that characterised the time and place in which The Beguiled is set. Nor is Hallie, a slave prominent in both the novel and the previous cinematic adaptation, included here.

For her part, Coppola has herself spoken to these deficiencies and, in an essay published by IndieWire, defended her choice to eschew mention or images of slavery or people of colour as not only a sensitive choice but one of little importance: “I thought there were universal themes, about desire and male and female power dynamics” she wrote, “that could relate to all women”.

While it goes without saying that the experience of white femininity - white antebellum southern femininity, no less - is neither as universal nor apolitical as Coppola seems to think, it is not exactly surprising that she approached the project with such naivety. After all, this is the woman who imagined otherness as being white in a nice hotel in Japan and dispensed with the one undocumented Latina member of the crew on which crime satire The Bling Ring centred.

For this reason, it’s not surprising to find that The Beguiled expects us to consider its story in purely gendered terms without the problematising element of race. Perhaps it's even meant to be clever: the women, caged alongside their prisoner by mere circumstance, are broken from the soporific spell of banal feminine tasks by the arrival of masculine sexuality.

Yes, diegetically The Beguiled is cut off from the real world. Unfortunately for Coppola, however, the outside has a way of creeping in.  

From the unspecified reason the war is taking place at all, to the absence of the slaves that would have made these women’s “universal” femininity possible, there is something jarring about the space left by these omissions.

Of course, just because the events occur in a vacuum doesn't mean they will be watched in one. Just the knowledge that the plantation on which Coppola filmed The Beguiled is the same one where Beyoncé made Lemonade - her seminal mediation on Black femininity - precludes the idea of such a space having any such political neutrality. Also, y’know, it’s a bloody plantation.

For the people whom Coppola makes her films, none of this may be a problem. In a way, the manoeuvres to elude context could even be considered conducive to creating the strange, sparse, dreamlike atmosphere that has become her signature. The film looks beautiful, the performances are great, and for once Coppola seems happy to work with women over 25.

Much has been made of Coppola’s win at Cannes, which saw her become only the second woman ever to be awarded the festival’s best director prize - which is great. She has always and continues to be one of the few major filmmakers consistently concerned with looking exclusively through the female gaze.

The Beguiled takes this in a new direction. Where her characters are usually inward and opaque, the women here are expressive and open in their malaise and anger and - though still not as clearly sketched as those elsewhere - are allowed more complexity and nuance when in pursuit of desire and vengeance.

But by putting them in this time and space, and imagining that the inevitably racially charged subtext can be repressed, these advances in Coppola’s take on gender are limited and undermined. How can femininity be represented as universal when black womanhood - the kind that Beyoncé so radically gave space to in the very same location - is so deliberately, conspicuously absent? 

Yes The Beguiled is a detour, but for Coppola all roads lead to the same place: the insular, impenetrable world of wealthy white girlhood.

The Beguiled is currently screening as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.