Coppola’s latest film, a Southern Gothic where seven women vie for the attention of a handsome injured soldier in the Civil War, fails to pack a punch – with aesthetics being prioritized over a meandering plot that needed a firm hand.
Coppola has always had a distinctive style, which I adore (Lost in Translation is one of my favourite films). The publicity for The Beguiled made me curious to see it; the setting of the Civil War colliding with a modern Coppola flair seemed bizarre to me, and I hoped that the pink-blush swirled lettering was a mockingly feminine touch to a subversive film. It seems that I was mistaken – although the directorial techniques were – as expected – flawless, the plot was disappointingly straight edge.
The Beguiled tells the story of seven women – five students and two teachers – living at Martha Farnsworth’s school for girls in Virginia in the midst of the American Civil War. One of the younger girls (Oona Lawrence) finds an injured solider whilst out picking mushrooms and brings him back to be cared for. The man, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell), belongs to the Union army, so initially the women consider handing him over as a prisoner of war to the Confederate Army; however, Miss Farnsworth (Nicola Kidman) decides that they should let his leg heal first. Slowly, McBurney woos the female students and teachers alike to fall for his masculine charm, seducing and manipulating his way into tragedy.
In typical Coppola style, the directorial techniques were painstakingly mapped out; a fixed camera with moving characters or vice versa; gratuitiously aesthetic realisation and a clever palette of colours and décor; and much like her previous oeuvres, the plot was meandering; slow: and despite its near-thriller status, its ending was unbelievably flat and anticlimactic (I won’t spoil that for you).
What is immediately problematic for me in terms of the plot is how anti-feminist it is. McBurney is the white male saviour; originally, the women get on well together and there is sisterhood, a sense of camaraderie; yet when a man arrives, they begin to turn on each other, competing for his attention. It’s horribly anti-feminist, even given its time. Coppola tends to create movies directly about females and their relationships with each other – The Virgin Suicides, The Bling Ring, etc – and so her purpose with this film, her overriding message, is confusing and unclear. It’s perhaps ironic that Coppola picked up the Best Director award from the Cannes Film Festival for The Beguiled being only the second women to do so. Her advancement and achievements seem to directly contradict that which she seems to portray in the film.
Another problem which has caused controversy since the release of the film is the whitewashing of black characters and lack of focus on slavery or even the context of the Civil War. Coppola made the decision to omit the slave character Mattie (the film is a based upon the 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan) – Coppola argued that this was due to the fact that she didn’t want black people to be portrayed in this way. “Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.” Why, then, make a film set in the antebellum South? Why, then, is the mixed-race character of Edwina played by the Caucasian Kirsten Dunst? Why are the majority of women white, blonde, and waif-thin? Beyond this there is almost no mention of slavery in the film, or what the war is even about – the characters only complain that soldiers steal their chickens. Though clearly the film convincingly tackles gender dynamics, it eliminates any notion of race which is clearly demanded from the context.
In terms of the plot, there’s an absence of sexual fantasy and devilish desire that appears in the 1971 film and original book; instead it’s almost too subtle, with girlish giggling appearing like harmless flirting, meaning that the one verging-on-violent sex scene near the end is anachronistic and uncomfortable. Colin Farrell lacks menace, peeking demurely through puppy-dog eyes up at the women who tend to his wounds.
The film is almost genre-less; not quite a horror, too vague to be a psychological thriller, to meanderingly slow to be a drama. If anything it’s often comedic – “we can show him some good Southern Hospitality” Elle Fanning’s Alicia coos, batting her eyelids shameless as the audience in the cinema stifled giggles. There’s no hero – there isn’t really an enemy either. The abrupt and anticlimactic ending reflects how the film has a narrative that ascends, but never descends to a comfortable end.