The Enemy Is Not What We Believe— On Sofia Coppola and The Beguiled

A quick note: there will be spoilers. I’ll try to keep them mild, but if you’ve yet to see The Beguiled and it’s on your agenda to do so, please proceed with caution.

I should probably also mention that Sofia Coppola is one of my favorite filmmakers— love Lost in Translation; love Marie Antoinette; love The Bling Ring. And it was largely this love of her previous work that prompted me to see The Beguiled after its first trailer gave me pause. See, I’m extremely squeamish, and I scare very easily; so, right around, “Get the saw. Now,” I began to have reservations.

Not to mention the fact that the trailer seems to reveal the entire plot: a swarthy, wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell) unexpectedly enters the lives of a small, isolated group of genteel Confederate ladies (Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning, along with four child actresses); he overwhelms them with his masculine wiles, against which they have no defenses; he seduces them; he beds them; he betrays them; and in the end, he receives a brutal, torturous comeuppance at their hands. Basically, “Legs” by PJ Harvey.

I also learned in the run up to the film that The Beguiled is a remake of a 1971 film of the same name, itself an adaptation of a novel, and that there was some controversy in Coppola’s decision to omit a black female character that was included in the 1971 feature. By the time the new Beguiled premiered in Cannes, it was facing a small wave of criticism stateside for being yet another overwhelmingly white work in Coppola’s alabaster oeuvre.

For my part, I wasn’t overly concerned by the whitewashing, though I understand why it’s an issue worth bringing up, especially at a time when the Gods of Egypt are all white and The Great Wall of China has been saved by Matt Damon. But Sofia Coppola is simply not the first auteur I would nominate to tell the story of a slave, particularly not as a side character in a film otherwise centered on white women, and I can only imagine that her including the character would have created more problems than it solved. (Full disclosure: I felt the same way about Coppola’s choice not to dramatize the criminal activity of a young, undocumented, Latina immigrant in The Bling Ring. Who would that have benefited?)

A question that did make me consider passing on the film, however, was why in 2017—amidst the increasingly vocal and violent antagonizing of non-white people in America—would Coppola choose to center a group of Confederate white women as pillars of strength and of virtue under fire? Was this not, at best, a regression from current female-led activism such as the Women’s March and the Mothers of the Movement or, at worst, a gross omission of the cruelty committed or instigated against black people by slave mistresses and other white women throughout Southern history?

Nevertheless, to the movies I went. Neither spoiled plot nor fear of severed limbs nor dubious politics would stay me from seeing Nicole Kidman, who has a very high-ranking place in my pantheon of actors, in her first collaboration with my problematic fave.

Photo: Focus Features

Now, there’s a lot about The Beguiled that’s not all surprising. The cinematography, for example, is full of the long, lingering shots of well-furnished interiors and sun-draped exteriors that you would expect from a Sofia Coppola film. Likewise, the pace is anything but hurried, allowing the tension to build subtly, almost imperceptibly, until it suddenly boils over.

And the acting is phenomenal across the board. As Miss Martha, the headmistress of the girls’ school in which she and the other young ladies have been abandoned since the war’s outbreak three years prior, Kidman moves seamlessly from warm mother hen to frigid taskmaster, often within a single scene. Dunst plays Edwina, a dutiful teacher “from town” and Miss Martha’s aide, with a combination of resignation and longing that renders her character both the most complex and the most sympathetic of the cast. Fanning is perfect as Alicia, Edwina’s constant antagonist, who thinly veils her spiteful, practiced self-absorption behind her doe-eyed debutante looks.

What caught me completely off guard was Farrell, or rather his character, Corporal McBurney, who is not the bodice-ripping Casanova I was braced for. He is instead a wounded foreigner—an Irish immigrant who only enlisted with the Union army out of need for money—who, after he is found in the woods and brought into the schoolhouse by one of the youngest and most open-hearted of the girls, bonds with each of his caretakers, provides them with free labor, and ingratiates himself into their world. He does indeed charm his way into the ladies’ hearts (I mean, why cast a babe like Colin Farrell if he’s not going to do a little flirting?), but his seduction is more for survival than for sport— it’s either find a way to be kept in the house or be handed over to the Confederate soldiers.

Photo: Focus Features

As the film unfolded, I began to realize the trailer had played a hell of a trick on me: it had indeed shown me the entire plot but in a crucially altered order. By the film’s climax, it’s clear that the Corporal is hardly the Big Bad Wolf of this story. Even in an outpouring of rage after a monumental accident, he’s essentially an antagonized animal that barks loudly but never bites back. And though he eventually apologizes for his outburst, it’s too late— the stunning lack of restraint, the sheer uncouth, convinces the ladies he must be removed once and for all.

Meanwhile, The Beguiled actually contains more than a few subversions of its own feminist appearances. Throughout the film, the only task more important to Miss Martha and her flock than shielding themselves from the stranger in their midst is running constant interference on each other’s happiness. The shade and the sniping are constant and expertly delivered. And when they all, save for one, do eventually come together against the Corporal, it’s not out of righteous anger; it’s to erase the evidence of their own sins (including, at this point, a false accusation of sexual assault) and return everything to the status quo. Even in the movie’s final moments, which left me utterly disquieted, upholding the appearance of sisterhood requires the sacrifice of one sister’s hope for a better life. And this is portrayed as simply a matter of fact. It’s chilling.

The film regularly contrasts the cold, petty, and often gruesome acts the women commit with their outward shows of Christian piety. They say their prayers and invoke the Lord’s name with the same ritualized detachment that they perform their music, recite their French lessons, and mind their manners during evening supper. But when tested, even the most innocent among them is quick to resort to brutality, a haunting reminder that the skill of dealing irreparable damage in Jesus’s name is learned very, very young.

Photo: Focus Features

The hypocrisy is obvious, and all too familiar, to the viewer. By the film’s end I couldn’t imagine seeing The Beguiled as a celebration of antebellum womanhood, though it did lead me to wonder why it was marketed that way. Clearly the minds behind the movie’s advertising thought framing these “lovable #VengefulBitches” as the new #squadgoals was the best way to get asses in the seats.

Not that this is the first Sofia Coppola film to be preceded by a promotional misdirect. For some reason, her languid, meditative, European-style movies are consistently done the disservice of advertising that packages them as turbulent Hollywood blockbusters. I know I have been fooled no less than twice— Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was billed as a raucous, CW-style, period piece-meets-party movie; it was really a series of excerpts from Antonia Fraser’s acclaimed biography of the monarch soberly reenacted over a modern soundtrack. As much as I enjoy that movie, I can easily understand why many others were disappointed by it.

Perhaps, in the case of The Beguiled, the bait-and-switch was intentional. The film’s themes do feel more than a bit topical, if not targeted— a group of white women using fear of the “other” (who has essentially committed the mortal sin of expressing emotion too brazenly) as a pretext for enforcing their strict, chosen moral code on one of their own… sounds familiar.

Or, a more cynical read, perhaps it was an attempt to cash in on the current craving for feminine opposition to an oppressive male regime. “Hell hath no fury like a women scorned” might be a more palatable message at the moment than “Hell hath no fury like the devil herself.” It’s an interesting, though obviously futile, thought experiment to imagine what the promotional strategy for The Beguiled would have been had the film come out during a Hilary Clinton presidency.

I am also curious to see whether The Beguiled will result in the same “bad fan” phenomenon associated with many male-centered films (think of all the guys you knew in undergrad with a Scarface poster or a Tyler Durden complex), whether the millennial women targeted by the film’s ad campaign will delight in the protagonists’ decorous savagery and elide the story’s inherent critique thereof.

Coppola has a habit of wrapping difficult themes in pretty packages, and I believe that both her fans and her critics have a tendency to gloss over this element of her work. While she is well known and frequently chided for her focus on the privileged lives of mostly-white characters, it seems often forgotten that these characters rarely ride triumphantly into the sunset. Her protagonists generally end up dead (The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette) or as lonely and isolated as they were at the outset (Lost in Translation, Somewhere, The Bling Ring). And in most cases, their privilege and entitlement are the very sources of their undoing. So, while the women of Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies do stand unharmed and unpunished in the film’s final frame, it’s significant to remember that they have also entombed themselves further into the myopic trench of their own design. If a viewer decides that this is something to celebrate, a real Girl Power! moment, I would argue it says more about that viewer than the movie.

All I know is that after sitting in uneasy silence through the entire roll of credits, still stunned from The Beguiled’s final scene, I left the theater feeling as if every warning tale I’d ever heard about sweet Southern belles while I was a naïve black kid growing up in the Bible Belt had been vividly reinforced. And I think those tales are well worth telling in 2017.