The world of Sofia Coppola often involves very pretty women in rather ugly situations — The Beguiled is no exception.
Just about a month after its debut at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Coppola's latest creation (and the first feature since 2013's The Bling Ring) has made its way stateside to entertain a different kind of audience. In a limited release in New York and Los Angeles, The Beguiled tested its ability to appeal to critics and serious movie goers alike after a successful time at the festival where Coppola became only the second woman in history to take home the award for Best Director.
An adaptation of the 1966 novel, originally entitled A Painted Devil, by Thomas P. Cullinan, and inspired in part by the 1971 film of the same name starring Clint Eastwood, The Beguiled tells a familiar story, but this time, Coppola claims, from the female perspective.
It's a couple of years into the Civil War in the heart of Virginia, and Union mercenary soldier John McBurney (a rugged, darkly attractive Colin Farrell) has fallen wounded in the woods. He's discovered by the young Amy (Oona Laurence), who takes him back to the girls seminary school where she lives with a number of other young women under the watchful eye of Miss Martha (a wicked and somehow also whimsical Nicole Kidman), hoping they'll be able to help him recover. The all-female household is immediately shaken up by the presence of a man as all of the women take a liking to Corporal McBurney. However, things take a turn for the worst — and at times for the scarily dark — when both the prim and proper Miss Edwina (Coppola friend and favorite Kirsten Dunst) and the much younger and flirtatious Miss Alicia (a quickly blossoming Elle Fanning) find themselves in competition for the Corporal's affections. One evening with the wrong woman leads to a series of cruel and unusual circumstances, all resulting in a strange battles of the sexes'.
Overall, the film is as aesthetically detailed as all of Coppola's previous work. There is remarkable attention given by the camera to show us the isolation of the young women and their estate, from the long shots focusing on the dark branches and crumbling dead leaves surrounding the premises of the estate to the wrought iron gates keeping everyone locked up from whatever must be more dangerous out in the real world. The dark, spacious but very empty shots continue into the interior of the plantation house of the seminary (the same location where Beyoncé shot scenes for last year's Lemonade), where we see ornate furniture and delicately decorated rooms, but even the bodies inside seem to have trouble fully filling them.
This feeling speaks to the larger role women play in the film. Each seems to be trapped inside the world of the seminary because it is supposedly safer than the outside world, but it also prevents the women from being able to fully express themselves. The minute McBurney disturbs their usual routines, the women start to see not only other options, but more largely, possibilities for their lives. Adwina imagines what it is like to not follow all of the rules while Alicia sees the ability to get married, finally having the ability to fully utilize her feminine wiles. And when their guest turns into an intruder, threatening their safety, the women realize their full capacity in coming together to preserve themselves. Each plays a part in the eventual demise and death of McBurney, giving them great agency by the conclusion of the film.
For this usage of its predominantly female cast, as well as the acclaim Coppola has received in her role as a female director, the label of "feminist film" is being thrown around in relation to The Beguiled. However, these themes have also come under a great deal of criticism from many critics. Coppola, most recently, has come under fire for the feminist language around the film while not having a working understanding of the Bechdel Test when questioned in an interview. It has raised the question: can this be considered a feminist film?
It's a difficult one to answer. There is something seemingly anti-feminist in the idea that the women's worlds are so drastically changed (arguably improved) when a man enters in the picture. They become brighter and more lively, all because of their interest in the Corporal. It hits a nerve, but is this perhaps because of its truth value? It is hard to picture the women having the same reaction to another female boarder at the home, or some other development on the property that changed their daily lives, but it's also disheartening to know some decent dark hair and brooding eyes can turn a person's world so thoroughly upside down. As much as it unsettles, sex and desire is a powerful force in both sexes. It is an interesting choice to highlight this in women in a "feminist" body of work, especially when many visions of feminism express a woman's appreciation of and ability to be independent of something seemingly so frivolous as matters of the heart. The women here prove themselves to have this kind of strength, but not before putting them through what can seem like a sort of test.
There are also problems that have arisen in something less realistic happening in the film: Coppola's "white washing" of the plot by disregarding the slave discussion and removing the female slave, Hallie, from her version of the story although she appears both in the book and the original film. Coppola has come under fire for not only this decision, but also her frequent use of the word "exotic" when discussing her interest in women who live in the south. She said she wanted to give these women a voice. Critics say that these women of privilege, in their corsets, curls, and pearls, are not the women who need the voice — not during the Civil War, and still not today. If Coppola wanted to empower women, those of this belief say it should have depicted all women, more diverse women.
But, overall, the film is not looking to be a piece of the political discussion, or a historical retelling of actual events. For better or for worse, I will let you decide. I will simply say that it seeks to be a work of cinematic art, and that I believe it can succeed in calling itself such.
It is interesting to watch, has an entertaining plot that will take you from intrigued to amused to fearful in the matter of two hours, and is impeccably acted out by its cast, whose chemistry (whether from being stuck in a hotel together after filming for months, or from working together in previous projects) is incredibly palpable. And with the help of Coppola's husband, Phoenix lends their musical talents to the score, only heightening the experience. But does all of this beauty make up for holes in the plot, undercooked themes of freedom, and ignorance of social constructs affecting both? I believe that depends on the particular viewer.
The Beguiled's strength is in its ability to use precision to create mood. Once the mood fades, just like in any love story, is when things will become more complicated for everyone.