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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The Beguiled movie review: horror of manners

The Beguiled green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
If Jane Austen wrote a horror movie. An almost serene sinisterness infuses female-gazey carnal intrigue… but it could be even more feminist than it is.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for stories about women; love the cast
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

So who is — or are — the beguiled of The Beguiled? Is it the badly wounded Union soldier taken in by the girls and women of a Virginia seminary school in 1864 while the Civil War rages nearby? Does he feel the need to enchant his captor-nurses so thoroughly that they wouldn’t dream of turning him over to the Confederate army as a prisoner of war? (He does indeed attempt this.) Or is it those few students and teachers remaining at the otherwise abandoned school, so secluded, so bereft of charming male companionship? (They are indeed all charmed by his sweet talk, his handsome face, his strong body so tantalizingly near-naked, as tending his wounds demands.) Is it all of them all at once, a roundrobin of beguilement?

Stranger danger, oh my...

Stranger danger, oh my…tweet

Now, I have not seen the 1971 film upon which this new version is based, but this level of ambiguity speaks well of Sofia Coppola’s (Marie Antoinette, Lost in Translation) feminist reimagining. The original film put Clint Eastwood’s soldier solidly at the center (or so it seems; I may have to give in and watch it), and director Don Siegal has stated that he believed this was a story about “the basic desire of women to castrate men.” (Dude. Jesus.) Coppola literally flips the script, and revolves the story around the school’s teachers (Nicole Kidman [Queen of the Desert, The Family Fang] and Kirsten Dunst [Hidden Figures, Midnight Special]) and five remaining students (the eldest of which is portrayed by Elle Fanning [Live by Night, 20th Century Women]). But Colin Farrell’s (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Winter’s Tale) soldier is as complicated and as crafty a character as the women all are. (This is so often true: the men in stories about women are infinitely more finely drawn and more complex than the women in stories about men usually are.)

The villain here isn’t a person: it’s the narrowness of permitted behavior for women, and for men too, in expressing desire.

There’s little question that Farrell’s Corporal McBurney is the antagonist of the tale, in that he is a powerfully provocative disruption to this all-female household. (But he’s not the villain. More on that in a moment.) His presence alters the wary dynamic among the girls and women, who are already uneasy about their vulnerability during wartime and suddenly find new danger in him: an enemy soldier! The danger he threatens is exciting and delicious, too, though: a woman could escape with him (once he’s healed, that is), escape from the isolation and suffocation of the school, see the world, become a worldly woman in a way that could never happen at a religious girls’ school. Oh yes, an aura of sex clings to Coppola’s McBurney, one of the best uses of Farrell’s gravitational intensity I’ve seen yettweet onscreen: he is an object of desire in ways that men so rarely are onscreen.

A gal can’t help but get lost in that smolder...

A gal can’t help but get lost in that smolder…tweet

Female-gaziness isn’t just about simply looking at men onscreentweet with the same yearning with which men look at women onscreen: it’s about conveying cinematically — in ways beyond the merely visual — how desiring a man makes a woman feel, and that is even rarer still than an opportunity to simply ogle a man onscreen. Yet here we have an entire movie that is about women navigating sexual desire for a man, and what happens when more than one woman wants the same man, and how it’s worse when he secretly encourages all of them. (There’s nothing overtly inappropriate in his interactions with the underage girls, the youngest of whom is maybe eight or nine. McBurney knows how to butter up a tween who is still more interested in insects than in sex, or who at least doesn’t quite appreciate why she is finding a hunky desperate stranger so intriguing. With the younger girls, there’s a definite whiff of the Big Bad Wolf about McBurney.tweet) But the villain here isn’t any one person: it’s the narrowness of permitted behavior for women, and for men too, in expressing desire, not only sexual desire but even in a broader what-do-you-want-out-of-life kind of way. The manipulations among the women and between them and the interloper man are all about the limited ways that strict gender expectations allow men and women to understand and relate to one another, and the problems that causes.

“Who’s the fairest of them all? Don’t say Colin Farrell...”

“Who’s the fairest of them all? Don’t say Colin Farrell…”tweet

Those expectations might not be quite as strict and narrow today as they were in 1864, but what happens here doesn’t feel so very alien. And so the quiet menace that infuses The Beguiled, the almost serene sense of the sinister, feels as potent and as relevant as, say, Jane Austen still does. In Coppola’s hands, this feels like what might happen if Austen wrote a horror movie.tweet Coppola won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival this spring — only the second time a woman has earned the acclaim — and it is well deserved: that same unspoken dread extends to the lush visuals and sultry atmosphere, wherein shafts of sunlight sparkle prettily and hazy sunsets are beautiful only because of the gunsmoke drifting in from nearby battles.

Coppola has come under fire, and rightly so, for eliminating a black character who was present in the 1971 film.

Still, Coppola’s decision to tell a story set in one of the most racially contentious times and places in all of history and not include a single black character is rather bizarre. “The slaves left” the school, we are informed as the movie opens, but that’s not good enough. Coppola has come under fire, and rightly so, for eliminating a black slave character who was present in the 1971 film, and for explaining that by saying that she wanted to tell a story about gender, not about race. (What? Black women aren’t women? White people don’t have race? Bullshit.) Without changing a single line of dialogue yet including a black girl or women at the school, Coppola could have had a film that is even richer thematically than it is,tweet one that acknowledged the intersectionality between class and race and gender that many feminists have come to insist is vital to the philosophy and to any advancement of women’s rights. It’s great to see a film like this one, with so many juicy roles for women, roles that run a wide spectrum of humanity: the women here are brave or cowardly, smart or gullible, innocent or full of guile. But they could have run an even fuller spectrum of humanity, and The Beguiled could have been even more feminist than it is.tweet

Click here for my ranking of this and 2017’s other theatrical releases.

green light 4 stars

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The Beguiled (2017) | directed by Sofia Coppola
US/Can release: Jun 23 2017
UK/Ire release: Jul 14 2017

MPAA: rated R for some sexuality
BBFC: rated 15 (brief strong sex)

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • IntrepidNormal

    It just upsets me to no end that yet another film maker (who’s previous work I’ve enjoyed) finds it less troublesome to exclude black women altogether than to write them with nuance. Black women are very tired of hearing that our experiences are too much of a hassle to depict sensitively. I’m going to give this one a skip. Feminism, in art or otherwise, means nothing if it can’t make room for all women.

  • Danielm80

    I’m pleased that two recent super-hero movies, The Lego Batman Movie (which I just discussed on another thread) and Spider-Man: Homecoming (coming out later this week) have gone out of their way to include actors who aren’t white. They had to make a serious effort, because the characters in the original comics were very white.

    It wouldn’t be entirely surprising, considering the state of this country right now, if half the movies released this year had very diverse casts and half were centered squarely around white men. Unfortunately, I suspect that we have years to go before we reach even that level of progress. But I’m starting to think I might see it in my lifetime.

  • IntrepidNormal

    Things are getting better and more inclusive, which is why decisions like this angry up the blood so much. Yeah, I get it, slave characters are tricky for a number of reasons. But look at Django Unchained, look at WGN’s underground, hell, look at the countless number if real life examples. How great would it have been if Coppola would have been a brave enough filmmaker to deliver the sort of dynamic stereotype-shattering character that’s so rarely seen in film due to the weird and unfortunate hangups too many white filmmakers have. I guarantee you the film would have been better for it, and Coppola would have recieved far more praise than derision. What a disappointment.

  • halavana

    It would have been such a twist to the plot to include the 2 characters that were left out: a black woman who could pass for white and a black maid (from the 1966 book). Gonna have to find that book…
    Thanks for the review.

  • leah

    I’ve yet to see this movie, but the issue re Coppola writing out the slave character made me think of ‘The Keeping Room’, a somewhat comparable setting that makes an effort at least to tackle the issue of slavery and the complexities of what happens when the expected social structure disintegrates, leaving the women’s hierarchy upended resulting in uncomfortable confrontation, defiance and redrawing of the women’s roles as equals. (It’s been quite a while since I saw The Keeping Room so this is just my recollection of the racial component, not sure if I’m overselling it in this regard.)

  • Bluejay

    Without changing a single line of dialogue yet including a black girl or women at the school, Coppola could have had a film… that acknowledged the intersectionality between class and race and gender that many feminists have come to insist is vital to the philosophy and to any advancement of women’s rights.

    A League of Their Own did better, way back in 1992. And A League of Their Own didn’t even do that much.


  • Mark Cavandish

    You must tire yourself out regularly with all your bitching, Lady.

  • RogerBW

    I’ve heard suggestions from other reviewers that things come apart a bit at the end as the story moves from slow-burn to fast-burn; any thoughts on that?

  • I would disagree with that. The pace does change, but there’s good reason for that and it works just fine.

  • RogerBW

    Good news, thanks.

  • leah

    Your review makes me want to watch it again! I liked it a lot. And I see the slavery issue was discussed a bit in the comments, in line with my memory of it. A second viewing might help tide me over until I can see The Beguiled anyway, needs more women’s Civil War stories.

  • Danielm80

    It amuses me that this movie has pretty much the same plot as The Little Hours.


  • RhesusPeaceus

    Identity politics is the death of art. Either the movie works or it doesn’t. When you impose morality upon aesthetics the conversation becomes tiresome and not the least bit intriguing.

  • Danielm80

    So you’d enjoy a snuff film if it were beautifully shot and had a terrific score?

  • leah

    not to mention having an all-white cast in a Civil War-set movie IS ‘identity politics’. It’s awfully convenient how this term is used by people so accustomed to being pandered to, they think of their identity as universal, the default, ‘the norm’ – and the reason they believe this is a result of systemic caucasian-centering identity politics. Irony.

  • Aww, it’s sweet that you think all movies aren’t embedded with “identity politics.” You think all those straight white men who made so many of our movies have no “identity politics” of their own?

  • Tonio Kruger

    Even more irony. Some of the most politically incorrect movies ever made about the U.S. Civil War — for example, Gone with the Wind — had plenty of black characters. I can understand why Ms. Coppola would not want her project to be associated with such films but her method of avoiding that was hardly an ideal one.

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