The Not-So-Beguiled

Sofia Coppola’s new film gets rid of everything that made the original interesting.

The Beguiled. YouTube

Sofia Coppola, recently awarded Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for The Beguiled, is a vapid filmmaker whose main talent lies in celebrating the languor of the world she knows: a world of wealth, travel, leisure, and pretty clothes worn by photogenically discontented people. Most of her imagery would fit perfectly in the pages of Vogue, Vanity Fair, or Harper’s Bazaar.

The Beguiled follows the conventions set up in Coppola’s past works, like Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, and Somewhere. Coppola maps her own cossetted worldview onto every project, and so The Beguiled once again treats its viewers to a dreamy vision of leisure and plenty for the beautifully dressed but emotionally troubled. This time, it’s set in the American South, a location that has long enthralled Coppola because, as Corey Atad quotes her in a recent Slate review, “It’s so exotic and different.”

Adapted from Don Siegel’s 1971 film of the same name, based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel, The Beguiled is a macabre Southern Gothic set during the last year of the Civil War at a ladies’ seminary in Virginia. The headmistress (Nicole Kidman) and her young charges wait out the war in desperate isolation, locked behind iron gates and alarmed by the approaching cannon fire.

In Coppola’s film, the incongruously fetching girls wear fresh pastel frocks and pose in picture-perfect romantic stasis. They’re often arranged in wonderfully composed shots, so that, for example, one girl’s pale pink satin dress perfectly compliments the eggshell white muslin next to it and the ice-blue silk across from it.

This 1864 Virginia doesn’t suffer from shortages of cloth or meat or wine. The Union navy, it seems, never blockaded Confederate ports; the Southern economy never collapsed. The women’s lavish evening gowns look brand new, and luxurious banquets are served at the seminary. The youngest girl’s occasional mushroom-picking excursions seem like an excuse to film huge moss-hung live oaks in the mist rather than an anxious hunt for food to pad out the meager rations of Southerners trapped between warring forces.

In this fairytale South, the only shortage is a shortage of men, and of slaves. “The slaves left” is the notorious explanation offered in the film’s first sequence for the expunction of the area’s entire black population. Obviously, this directorial choice has caused a certain amount of controversy.

The 1971 film removed one black character, changing the schoolteacher Edwina, the mixed-race daughter of a slave, into a white character, but it kept Hallie, who, as played by the beautiful Mae Mercer, becomes the film’s practical moral center.

Coppola decided to get rid of her too. As Sensei Seren reports:

Asked about the lack of acknowledgement of Black people in a movie set against the backdrop of the Civil War, Coppola replied that she “. . . wished to explore the gender dynamics of the Confederacy, not the racial ones.” The backlash was swift, as many felt the immediate implication was that Black women do not have gender dynamics.

The absence of slaves means that Coppola’s cast of white ladies must work, and, in several scenes, Coppola shows what she thinks “work” looks like. The girls attempting to hang sheets on a clothesline looks especially funny because, if you’ve ever handled those old wooden clothespins, you know it takes two seconds to affix each one to the sheet and the line. But the girls stand twiddling vaguely at the laundry for ages. Coppola may not know much about work, but she knows about holding poses.

This contrasts sharply with Siegel’s version, where the women — all busier, plainer, and far less glamorous — lead much more hardscrabble lives. The labor of keeping the place running, most of which Hallie seems to do, becomes a compelling plot point. This more realistic harshness taxing all the characters generates a collectively sweaty and nightmarish fantasy of desire, incest, rape, and vengeful castration, full of gargoyle close-ups, lurid flashbacks, and panting voice-overs. (“If this war doesn’t end soon I’ll forget I’m a woman.”) It’s an amazing, mad film, like a direct communication from the id.

Siegel’s version of The Beguiled flopped hard on its initial release in the United States, but, unsurprisingly, the French loved it. It’s become a cult classic now, embraced for its bizarre Gothic sensibility. As an illustration of just how strange it is, when I mentioned the title to a friend recently, he said, “You mean the one with the turtle?”

The turtle plays such a key role in one climactic scene of violence that I can’t describe it to you without spoiling the story. That observation sums up my affection for this unique and surreal cinematic tour-de-force.

In the remake, a turtle plays approximately the same role, but Coppola downplays its significance. This mistake is emblematic of the overall error she makes in trying to tame and prettify her source material. The Beguiled’s narrative is ugly, obsessive, and uncanny in its repetitions, not a mild, semi-realistic study of women in wartime, as Coppola has laughably suggested in interviews.

A badly wounded Union soldier, Colonel John McBurney, played by Clint Eastwood in the original and Colin Farrell in Coppola’s remake, sets the film’s overheated drama in motion. Reluctantly taken into the ladies’ seminary, he begins to manipulate the lonely women in order to convince them not to hand him over to the Confederate Army.

The 1971 version is, among other things, a vehicle for Eastwood. As in many of his movies, he becomes the center of a storm of female desire as well as the potential victim of female revenge as payback for his beguiling attractions. Eastwood’s interest in the material centered, in typically regressive fashion, on what Siegel called the “desire of women to castrate men.”

The film exemplifies the 1970s cinematic trend toward crude misogyny in reaction to the women’s liberation movement’s advances, but, in spite of his reactionary views, Siegel was a hell of a director. He makes The Beguiled hideously, grippingly fascinating. Eastwood has rarely been portrayed so monstrously: for every livid and distorting close-up of Geraldine Page as the domineering headmistress Miss Martha, there’s one of Eastwood’s McBurney looking crazed, pop-eyed, and snarling.

His attempts to seduce practically the entire school do not spare the thirteen-year-old girl who first finds him in the woods. Played by Pamelyn Ferdin, the character looks about ten. Few moments in cinema are more skin-crawling than the one when, in order to prevent the girl from calling out to passing rebel soldiers, McBurney asks, “You’re not too young for kisses, are you?” before planting a long, lingering one right on her mouth. (I hope Siegel set money aside for Ferdin’s psychotherapy.)

It’s rare to see such a macho star play a character in a state of forced dependency, working his sexual wiles on women for his own gain and being punished for it with extreme prejudice. The character verges on a gender-switched femme fatale, and this factor may explain why the film did so badly. Eastwood himself claimed that his fans simply didn’t want to see him play an emasculated “loser.”

Siegel frames the main narrative’s insane excess with Matthew Brady–style photographs of battle and carnage, which contextualizes the characters’ distorted consciousness and behaviors as the product of the horrors of the Civil War. On the soundtrack, Eastwood mutters song lyrics that caution women not to send men off to be soldiers. Siegel and Eastwood had grandiose notions that they were making an antiwar film, and they resisted the screenwriter Albert Maltz’s attempt to contrive a happy ending for the two central characters.

Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten investigated, jailed, and then blacklisted on suspicion of inserting communist messages into American films, was ultimately fired from The Beguiled, but it may be aspects of his sensibility left over in the script that make the film so hard to read ideologically. Against the film’s apparent argument about the brutalizing experience of war, there are wild flashbacks that point to antebellum Southern society’s deep sickness. Miss Martha has an incestuous and repeatedly consummated affair with her brother, who also rapes Hallie. A nightmarish portrait of the sibling lovers hangs in a place of honor in the seminary, which was once the family plantation.

In the remake, Coppola gets rid of all that material. She keeps a pallid version of the main storyline, the power struggle between the Union soldier and the Confederate women. McBurney uses his seductive charm to gain ascendancy over the women but overplays his hand and reaps the whirlwind of their rage. The women he’s most badly wronged re-break his leg in a violent struggle, then Miss Martha directs its gruesome amputation. In his own vengeful rage, he escalates the battle. (The trailer provides pretty much all this plot information, in that winsome too-much-information way previews have adopted.)

Colin Farrell plays McBurney far more softly and earnestly than Eastwood did, obscuring and excusing the character’s desperate and heartless manipulations. He doesn’t kiss any thirteen-year-old girls, nor does he threaten to rape everyone at gunpoint, as Eastwood’s McBurney did.

The casting makes sense: Farrell’s stardom rests on his tomcat sexual appeal, and The Beguiled is primarily a supercharged erotic melodrama. But attempting to make him and everything else about the film softer and nicer only makes it silly.

When I saw the film, the audience burst out laughing several times: first, when during his second conversation with repressed schoolteacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) McBurney suddenly and implausibly brays, “I love you!”.

Later, Carol (Elle Fanning) visits amputee McBurney, after he’s been raging around the seminary screaming “You vindictive bitches!” It was her eager sexual interest in him that ended up losing him his leg. “How ya doing?” she asks.

That was a riot.

Maybe Coppola gained something in translation at the Cannes Film Festival screenings, and the audiences received this film as a brilliant dark comedy. That might explain the award.