Diversity, Feminism, Gender, Movies, Reviews

The Beguiled: Gorgeous but Empty

The Beguiled (2017)

Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning
Focus Features
June 23, 2017

The Beguiled, directed by Sophia Coppola, is a gorgeous, but muted film. It’s an adaptation of the Gothic novel A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan and a remake of the lurid 1971 Don Siegel film by the same name. Coppola removes all of the camp and misogyny of the 1971 version and pivots the film so that the focus is on the women rather than on the man, winning her the award for Best Director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and making her only the second woman to do so. And yet for all it’s beauty, grace, and swelling overtures, by the end of the film I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly the point was. The Beguiled: it is a film that exists.

Set during the Civil War in Virginia, it begins with a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), who is rescued by the young Amy (Oona Laurence) and brought to Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, a secluded boarding school that has just two teachers and five students remaining. Run by Martha (Nicole Kidman) and Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), it’s a school of genteel manners, French lessons, and Christian restraint, and McBurney’s presence as a handsome Irish rogue–who only becomes more flirtatious and cunning once he realizes the power his looks afford him in an isolated house full of women–quickly inspires tension and jealousy. McBurney begins a courtship with shy lump of sadness Edwina, flirts just enough with the tightly coiled and rational Martha to ensure she never gives him up to Confederate soldiers, all while trading lusty looks with teen Alicia (Elle Fanning). McBurney thinks himself smarter than he is, and it’s unsurprising when his attempts at playing the field blow up spectacularly in his face.

I say “blow up,” but what I really mean is Coppola treats the climax of the film with all the force of a very distant cannon boom. Although a remake of a sinister psychodrama, here all of the anguish and terror has been stripped away, and what we’re left with is a film strangely removed from the horror that quickly engulfs the house. Coppola never quite shakes the dreamy atmosphere of the film, and it feels as if the women are never allowed to fully voice themselves. Most of the thriller aspects that made the film look so intriguing in the trailer end up happening off-screen or are far less dramatic than originally advertised. Listen, I never thought I’d say that not showing a bloody amputation detracts from a film, but that’s where I’m at right now.

Undeniably, it’s a beautiful film. At the hands of cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, we’re treated to images of lush, expansive gardens, candlelit dinners, lavish dresses, and the skyline turning pink with the dawn. We hear the hum of cicadas fill the air as classical music ebbs and flows between scenes. In many scenes the lighting is incredibly ethereal. Nobody is denying that Coppola knows how to craft visually arresting films. But story-wise, I wonder what exactly the film wants to say.

If you’re at all familiar with the novel or the 1971 film, you’ll find that Coppola’s version offers no major plot twists or subversions that change the conclusion or overall meaning of the film. The women are still portrayed as easily tempted and quick to jealousy. Even as things spin out of control, the women end up staying in their confined gender roles, and the tensions between them are never resolved, at least not verbally. Sure, the women are afforded much more dignity and respect than Siegel ever gave them, and with the camerawork it has the feel of an undeniably feminist film. But when I take a step back, I can’t think of a single conversation between the women that somehow didn’t involve McBurney. The core cast is made up of about 90 percent women, but does it even pass the Bechdel Test? Of why she took on the film, Coppola says, “I felt like I had to give these women a voice.” A noble idea, but perhaps one less so when you consider that the original novel already had every chapter narrated from each woman’s point of view.

And then there’s the question of race, or lack thereof, in the film. The film was shot at Madewood Plantation, a former sugarcane plantation near Napoleonville, Louisiana. It was considered one of the most successful plantations in the area, and historians estimate about 250 slaves toiled there daily. In a Times Picayune article, the granddaughter of the Madewood Plantation owner claimed that her ancestor treated his slaves with kindness; a former slave who worked there said the exact opposite. It’s a location with a deep and painful history for Black people–a history that the article demonstrates many white people are still in denial about–which is why Beyonce reclaiming the space in Lemonade was so significant, and why Coppola, a white director, ignoring that same history is so galling for many.

Kirsten Dunst as Edwina in The Beguiled / © Focus Features

Coppola’s version of The Beguiled cuts out the slave character, Mattie, and changes Edwina from a biracial Black teen into a white teacher. In a Buzzfeed article, Coppola says she was only interested in the gender, not the racial or political, aspects of the Civil War. I’m not one to argue that a white director should take on slavery, especially if there’s a chance they’ll bungle it, but I do also wonder why one would ever be interested in setting a film during the Civil War without ever touching on it. Again, what is the point? With its hermetically sealed boarding school and its refusal to acknowledge the issues at play during the Civil War, what is the film trying to say?

I also wonder about Edwina and if it was actually necessary to change her to a white woman. In Coppola’s film, Kidman’s Martha treats Dunst’s Edwina with a harshness that feels unfounded, and some of the younger girls are surprisingly disrespectful to Edwina, often back-talking her or undermining her self-confidence. Edwina is easily wooed by McBurney because she says he’s the first man to call her uncommonly beautiful. When McBurney ends up lusting after Alicia, the younger, lily white woman, over poor Edwina, I wondered how casting differently could have changed the presentation of the material. Wouldn’t keeping Edwina a biracial Black woman have made all this a much more pointed commentary, and shown the audience what the intersection of gender and race looks like? Without even changing the original dynamics or the script, couldn’t Coppola have infused her film with an additional–and frankly much needed–subtext of how Black women are treated differently, just by casting a biracial woman rather than Dunst? 

Perhaps that would have been too damning of the white women in the film for Coppola’s taste. In the end, we are meant to sympathize with these girls, daughters of slave owners, who are shown to be terribly inept at tilling their own garden. This, on top of Fanning’s Instagram post, where her and Dunst pose like Beyoncé and Serena Williams, and Laurence’s YouTube video of the all-white cast lip syncing to Hamilton’s Schuyler Sisters, leads one to feel as if the significance of the location has flown entirely over everyone’s heads. A gorgeous film, but one that feels rife with missed opportunities.