Sofia Coppola’s sixth major feature, third adaptation, and first stab at Southern gothic is an indulgent and beautiful drama that is haunted by its own clumsy anachronism. In The Beguiled, a maimed Union soldier’s fate cauterizes as he arrives at a Confederate girl’s school during the throes of the American Civil War. The drama’s pastel torture chambers birth a new, unfuckwithable effeminate archetype: the Belle Fatale. Such attention to the prowess of Southern women, while delightful, also raises urgent questions about historical memory and omission.
Depictions of pre-, inter-, and post-bellum life cause wariness among folks who consider a production’s locale home. The Southern period genre is difficult to pull off; it’s too easy to cut corners by utilizing an illusion of universal prosperity (Gone with the Wind), universal destitution (Deliverance), or de-centering the traumatized character whose life is supposedly at stake (Twelve Years a Slave, The Help). This quest for honesty in history isn’t being waged exclusively against the silver screen.
Driven by the inability to sit with the truth of violence against people of color, conservative Georgian politicians have a knack for smudging our past. Immediately after his election in 2011, Commissioner of Agriculture Gary W. Black ordered that eight portraits depicting the frank history of Georgia’s agrarian past be removed from his downtown office, noting that “we can depict a better picture of agriculture.” Those works, painted by George Beattie in 1956, boldly acknowledge the pre-European propagation of Georgia’s land by indigenous populations. They also emphasize that our farming successes were built upon the backs of Black innovators and laborers (in one particular Beattie mural, a male slave is depicted as Michelangelo's Rebellious Slave). A little over a decade before these paintings were hung, Governor Eugene Talmadge pulled a similar stunt, firing Georgia Southern (then Georgia Southern Teachers’ College) President Marvin Pittman for promoting integration. He cited the existence of books on the torture and emancipation of enslaved Black people in the college’s library as evidence. A major dilemma of white supremacy’s history is that its beneficiaries usually have full agency over its existence and, conveniently, its elimination. The consequence of perpetuating injustice should not be removal of abominable relics, but mindful preservation and public reminders that such events transpired on our own red clay. In order to recollect the glee once held toward dehumanization, the public archive is imperative. It is for this reason that The Beguiled--while one of the most satiating films to be released during this inaugural summer of dogmatic hostility towards women, queers, and people of color--is also worth its weight in critique.
As cannons boom in the distance, Amelia ‘Amy’ Dabney (Oona Laurence), originally from Georgia, tiptoes through the Virginia woodlands to collect a basket of phallic mushrooms for supper. In the process, the schoolgirl also plucks up her very own scraggly Union deserter: the handsome Corporal John 'McBee' McBurney (Colin Farrell), an Irishman. With a superhuman strength that is native to Southern women, twelve year-old Amy hauls McBee back to the school (which isn’t so much of a schoolhouse as an antebellum home with floorboards that squeak about its former glory). The five students and their superiors, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), cautiously bring McBee indoors. They clutch his weak, filthy body as though they are pallbearers in a funeral procession, eventually depositing him on a settee in the school’s music room. Starved for masculine energy, the seven girls and women drip with a range of emotions, all a bit obsessive--friendliness, lust, melancholy, suffocation, domesticity--at the sight of such a man; a man of troublesome political ideology but a man no less, taut chest glistening with fever. As McBee betters under the care of the god-fearing matriarch Miss Martha, he begins to reciprocate and tamper with the residents’ dotings. Between the blue-bellied fox in the henhouse and the ongoing war in the backyard, the school capitulates into chaos.
This is not The Beguiled’s first rodeo. Based upon the 1966 novel A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan, the text was first adapted in 1971 by the late Don Siegel, whose legacy was sealed with thrillers like Dirty Harry. Starring Clint Eastwood as McBee, the ‘71 film possess a physical immediacy and the rapidfire, clever dialogue of a classic Western. ‘Man’s man’ masculinity also abounds; at one point McBurney, terrified, manages to joke that he hopes that Miss Martha, should she hurt him, refrain from amputating his penis. In order to make the most of Eastwood’s suffering at the hands of a gaggle of Southern women, I recommend watching Magnum Force (1973) Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) first; equal parts homophobic and homoerotic, Eastwood’s antagonism is destined to get you riled up and ready for The Beguiled.
The female characters in Siegel’s adaptation also embody a rugged aesthetic: in the director’s biography, it is noted that he forbade actors from wearing make-up (they would resist, as femmes do, by showing up on set wearing nail polish and lipstick out of spite). While Siegel approached the feminine with hostility, Coppola indulges it. Brooches, off-the-shoulder dresses, pearl earrings, and homemade apple pie are all treated as desire’s talismans. Miss Martha’s girls behave as paper dolls, their complex undergarments and dresses changed at will. Coppola is no stranger to celebrating the trappings of femininity; look no further than her Marie Antoinette (2006), in which Dunst plays the one part-lavish, one-part doomed Queen of France. If gender is a construct, American Zoetrope is the architecture firm and Coppola is its senior architect. Her sharp understanding of performativity and the desirous glance echoes that of the fashion designer and filmmaker Tom Ford, who crafted a telling portrait of ideal gay masculinity in his 2009 feature debut, A Single Man.
Despite the film nearly failing the Bechdel Test--an assessment, it has been noted, with which Coppola is blissfully unfamiliar--the girls and women of The Beguiled communicate with their eyes and the corners of their mouths, offering telling, one-off remarks. Paradoxically, it’s Coppola’s ignorance of poststructural theory--“I don’t know what the male gaze is. I use my own gaze,” she once remarked in interview--that make her latest endeavor all the more palatable to feminist and queer viewers; The Beguiled doesn’t possess the dense, didactic, and borderline elite intertextual whiteness of a Jill Soloway tome.
Refreshingly, all this effeminacy does not negate valor. In The Beguiled, a camera lingers on a schoolgirl fearlessly perched in the high boughs of a tree, her white dress billowing around her. While Coppola’s 1999 take on Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides came with a requisite dose of bloodshed, The Beguiled marks her first dabble with homicide and female separatism. Nicole Kidman thrives as the omnipotent Miss Martha; while she can’t control the war raging outside, she certainly has control over the one taking over her school. There is a voyeuristic delight in McBee’s pain, his blood juxtaposed with ruffles and feathers. The film’s man-butchering gore brings to mind the flamboyance and bloodlust of Diablo Cody’s Jennifer’s Body or Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s “Telephone” music video. The film ends as it begins: with peculiar mushrooms and girl pallbearers, a Southern platitude echoing in the amid the cannons: If the matriarch ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
Solid adaptations, however, must bring the world of a source text to life without mangling critical plot points. The film must also render a bulk of the internal context, backstory, and moods subtly external. Loss is inevitable; I prefer the movie to the book, said no one ever. Through Coppola’s lens, The Beguiled finally returns to the female-centric perspective of Cullinan’s novel, in which each chapter is named after a female resident of the school who gives her first-person account of events. The narrative rotates between strong personalities and opinions on the housing and demise of McBee.
Viewers aren’t privy to the complexities of Amy’s Scout Finch-esque gender subversiveness (“She’s such a little plain looking little sunburned thing who sometimes reminds me of a chipmunk or a frightened deer,” one of the girls observes.) Alice’s (Elle Fanning) class insecurity and sexual overcompensation are also reduced to slapstick gazes across a kitchen table. Some schoolhouse residents are consolidated with others or removed entirely, most contentiously the slave Mattie, who fiercely holds her own with Clint Eastwood in the ‘71 adaptation and is described as “the nicest person here” by Amy in the novel.
“A lot of slaves had left at that time,” Coppola justified in interview, later adding that, “You can’t show everyone’s perspective in a story.” Her response echoes that of Gary W. Black when he removed the Beattie murals: We can depict a better picture. Coppola’s version of a ‘better’ story might just be one that possesses her trademark linearity and minimalism. And given the preeminent female auteur’s history of infuriating audiences with a depiction (Lost in Translation) and a mass whitewashing (The Bling Ring) of characters of color, it comes as no surprise that she’d find another manner to absolve such responsibility entirely: erasure. This unfortunate creative decision is made more awkward by Emily’s (Emma Howard) idle and pointless supporting character. Removing Mattie doesn’t remove slavery’s abomination. If anything, it adds an obvious, perpetually looming ghost to the antebellum home. And for viewers of color, these traumatic realities readily live on in our own viscera; no need to tacitly omit.
In doing what permits the easiest story, Coppola risks positioning herself among the ranks of our Blacks and Talmadges; sweeping history beneath a rug because it is convenient to her manner of storytelling. The problem with eradicating an unsavory character is the same as the problem with eradicating a brutally honest mural or textbook: censoring or turning a blind eye to history does no one any favors.
Not even one of the greatest female filmmakers of the past 25 years.
A north Georgia native, Sarah Fonseca reconciles her Southern expatriate status by residing in the same Brooklyn neighborhood that birthed Stonewall Jackson. She's into literary criticism, filthy ideas, and their overlapping iterations; read more at sarahfonseca.com.