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?
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.)
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 yet onscreen: he is an object of desire in ways that men so rarely are onscreen.
Female-gaziness isn’t just about simply looking at men onscreen 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.) 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.
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. 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.
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, 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.