Virginia, 1864. The Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies – five pupils of varying ages, under the care of Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), and her second-in-command Miss Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) – is an exclusively feminine island in the middle of the Civil War: we hear the sound of cannons booming in the distance and see great plumes of black smoke rising above the tree line on the horizon. Enter Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded Yankee soldier whom Amy (Oona Laurence), one of the school’s youngest pupils, finds in the woods and drags home. ‘Christian charity’ dictates that they should nurse him back to health, as Miss Martha reminds her charges, gently chastising those who recoil at the sight of this blood-stained and filthy enemy combatant, particularly the ‘catty’ Alicia (Elle Fanning). The “easily amused” McBurney convalesces on the music room settee and watches as each of the householders projects a particular image onto him – dear friend, protector, dangerous enemy, lover. At first he proves a master chameleon, cautiously adapting to the alternating needs of his paramours, but over time he becomes bolder and inevitable chaos ensues.
In a recent interview in the Guardian, Coppola explained that with The Beguiled – her sixth feature – she set out to create “something beautiful, something poetic,” and indeed, she’s outdone herself. There’s the opening scene: an avenue of trees, thick tendrils of Spanish moss hanging languidly from the branches, golden beams of sunlight and the swirling early morning mist. The Corinthian columns of the plantation mansion that becomes the stage for Coppola’s battle between the sexes glow a warm dusty pink in the evening light. Not to mention the women themselves, clad in starched cotton gowns in an array of pristine pastel shades. It’s a film that celebrates a particular idea of Southern splendour. When Miss Martha reminisces about the parties held in the house back in her youth, we know exactly what she’s picturing: scenes from the glory days of Tara in Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind (1939) or the Olympus Ball in William Wyler’s Jezebel (1938), Southern society gatherings in which white women are as much the graceful pillars of their communities as those that adorn the grand houses over which they preside. What’s troubled many, however, is the way in which Coppola’s portrait of the South seemingly ignores the fact that this is a beauty built on bloody horror, brutal servitude and degradation.
The first time I watched the film, I left the cinema firmly of the opinion that it was a case of style over substance. Coppola’s distinctive gauzy, ‘girly’ aesthetic – for some, her weakness; for others, her strength – had finally proved too much. The accusations of ‘whitewashing’ that preceded the film’s release were at the forefront of my mind, impossible to ignore. Coppola has removed the story’s only African American character, a slave named Hallie, played by Mae Mercer in Don Siegel’s 1971 film of the same name (originally named Mattie in Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel A Painted Devil, on which both directors’ screenplays are based) as well as making no mention of the fact that Edwina is supposed to be biracial (though Siegel notably set the precedent here, casting Elizabeth Hartman in the role). Admittedly Coppola describes the film as a “reinterpretation” of the previous feature, not a remake. “‘Remake’ is like a bad word in our family,” she explained in the Guardian interview – but all the same, these absences haunted every scene that played out on the screen in front of me.
This isn’t the first time Coppola’s been hauled over the coals for a depiction of the feminine that’s near exclusively white. Before The Beguiled came The Bling Ring, which excluded one of the real life thieves, an undocumented Mexican immigrant. And it also isn’t the first time that she’s found herself dealing with accusations of glossing over the politics attached to the subjects of her work. Marie Antoinette was a tour de force of solipsistic extravagance, excess, and the single-minded pursuit of pleasure that while delighting some (myself included), proved too much – or too little – for others. That said, the blind spots of The Beguiled have garnered particularly heartfelt criticism, and for good reason. As someone astutely replied to my Tweet about how disappointed I’d been with the film, “Perhaps right now is not the best or most relevant moment for a stylish movie about beleaguered Confederate white ladies?” In a world that recently saw Coppola win Best Director at this year’s Cannes, as only the second woman to have been awarded the honour and someone thus all too easily presumed to speak for all women out there – ‘Sofia Coppola Can Teach You What Women Want’ ran the headline of a recent interview in GQ – it’s increasingly important to wrestle with the problematic elements of her work.
On viewing the film a second time, however, although still keenly aware of what was missing, I decided not to linger on condemning what wasn’t there, and instead critique what was. “I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way,” Coppola explained when BuzzFeed News asked about Hallie’s removal from her narrative. “Young girls watch my films, and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.” As a white woman myself, I’m perhaps not best qualified to declare Coppola right or wrong. What I can do is heed John Updike’s advice to, “Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, that is being cast.”
So what enchantment is The Beguiled attempting to cast over its audience? Is it a self-consciously ahistorical period piece in the vein of Marie Antoinette? No one could describe Coppola’s opulent 18th century-set eye candy as authentic, but I would argue that it’s truthful in as much as it captures the essence of the closeted and cosseted world in which it’s set, the aesthetic serving to demonstrate more than merely being easy on the eye. Is Coppola attempting to show us something similar when it comes to genteel Southern femininity? Indeed, Plantation Era society operated under rituals and protocols not dissimilar to Versailles. And, just as Marie Antoinette is a swan song to the French monarchy, so too The Beguiled is a portrait of the twilight years of Antebellum life.
White femininity has always been Coppola’s subject, so we shouldn’t exactly be surprised it’s the perspective she’s chosen here. All the same, and more so than in any of her previous films, her omission of any black characters is glaringly obvious. The consequence of which – whether intentional or not on Coppola’s part – is that we’re forced to consider the myths surrounding and sustaining the privilege and power of white Southern femininity. Think of that most famous of Southern belles, Scarlett O’Hara. Her promise to “lie, steal, cheat or kill” in order to claw back the life of plenty she and her kin once enjoyed is evidence of the same steely resilience demonstrated by Coppola’s protagonists. Or greedy, grasping Julie Marsden in Jezebel, who pulls Halycon’s bare-footed slave children to her silk-draped bosom and leads them in a rousing song to show their Northern guest some good old fashioned Southern hospitality, ignoring the sound of the fever cannons in the distance. With their butter-wouldn’t-melt smiles, beautiful manners, and cute curtsies, Coppola’s belles are just as ruthless, and equally complicit in their own myth-making. How else to explain the control with which they all go on eating their supper while McBurney struggles to catch his final breaths. It’s no stretch of the imagination to picture them persecuting the black women upon whom so much of their privilege rests. Just because Coppola doesn’t show it, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Indeed, Coppola’s mise-en-scène is an integral part of the film’s myth-making. The director regularly arranges her “vengeful bitches” in beautiful tableaux, most strikingly in the final shot of the film, the women on the mansion’s front steps, having carted McBurney’s body out onto the road outside, they’ve re-grouped, retreating back behind the estate’s locked gates, their female-only idyll now restored. These are women who value their own ornamentation. Even in the absence of a male gaze, Coppola’s own fetishises femininity and its fripperies: softly tousled chignons and beautifully braided tresses are shot from behind, corsets are pulled tight, velvet hair ribbons languorously tied into bows, the ruffles on a skirt shot in close up, and countless tiny cotton-covered buttons skitter across the floorboards when a bodice is ripped open.
In its exploration of the innocent world of girlhood corrupted by the arrival of a male object of desire The Beguiled feels like the natural successor to the director’s earliest work. If Alicia could only summon up enough energy, surely she’d have cross-stitched ‘McBurney’ onto her bloomers Lux Lisbon-style. More likely, however, she’s simply too bored. Something that, although it fits well with Coppola’s previous studies of ennui, proves problematic in terms of narrative propulsion. If this is Southern Gothic it’s a highly sanitised version of the genre. Gone is the South’s bloody, horror-filled history; and with it any reference to the hardships and privations their being marooned in the middle of the conflict would actually entail. Are we seriously to believe these white-clad, delicate beauties, their hands soft, their nails clean and trimmed, are really working in the yard, cooking their own sumptuous meals, and pressing each and every delicate layer of their own silk gowns? Without Hallie they’d surely be lost! The film is also devoid of the incest storyline between Miss Martha and her brother Robert present in both the original novel, and, via flashbacks (along with soft-core-styled lesbian dreams) in Siegel’s feature. Admittedly the stuff of pulp, they served a purpose: evidence of the igniting sexual tension in the household. So too the central scene in Siegel’s film in which Miss Martha amputates McBurney’s injured leg – complete with the rasping sawing sound effect, her blood-stained hands pushing back loose hair from her eyes, sweat beading on her forehead, the strain of it all almost too much to bear – has been replaced in Coppola’s version by Kidman’s washing of McBurney’s unconscious, injured body (Mattie/Hallie’s task in the original story, an activity deemed unsuitable for a ‘lady’ like Miss Martha). Her eyes and hands linger over his gleaming torso, tentatively probing the hidden regions of his inner thighs before hastily retreating as if rebuked, a cooling splash of cold water needed to calm her blushing cheeks. Given we don’t see her in the fabled act of castration itself, and her only instance of intimacy with the male body is characterised by timidness and unease, it’s a struggle to buy into her as a slighted woman out for revenge.
I’ll admit that Coppola’s aesthetic in this film isn’t as empty as I’d first thought, and so too there’s more to be learnt here about race than we might initially assume – as the brilliant Claudia Rankine reminds us, “it’s important that people begin to understand that whiteness is not inevitable, and that white dominance is not inevitable,” it’s something that needs interrogation and analysis. But I haven’t changed my mind about how lacking in motivation Coppola’s characters are when it comes to actions that are integral to the plot. And it’s from this point of view that her omission of Hallie and the changes she’s made to Edwina’s identity become not just politically problematic but also narratively so. In the original novel Edwina keeps her mother’s racial identity a closely guarded secret, her resultant cold standoffishness alienating her from the others as she lives in constant fear of being exposed (though, incidentally, in Cullinan’s story she’s the oldest and wealthiest pupil, not a teacher – both Siegel and Coppola’s Edwina is a composite of Cullinan’s Edwina and Miss Harriet Farnsworth, Miss Martha’s younger sister, with whom she co-runs the school). The wily McBurney’s suspicions regarding Edwina’s parentage are aroused very early on in his stay; the answer he coaxes from her when he asks what she wants most in the world is “to be somebody else.” This is a very different desire than Coppola’s Edwina’s wish “to be taken far away from here.” It suits Coppola’s purposes, of course, since she’s long been interested in trapped women: the Lisbon sisters who are kept under lock and key at home by their parents in The Virgin Suicides; Lost in Translation’s Charlotte in her Tokyo hotel room; Marie Antoinette stifled by the French court; Cleo stuck inside Chateau Marmont with her father in Somewhere… so it makes sense that she would follow Siegel’s lead, reconfiguring Cullinan’s story to revolve around a woman trying to break free of a curtailed existence. In theory there’s a convincing story here, but in practice, why Edwina feels like this is never adequately explored, nor is why she forgives McBurney his fateful assignation with Alicia.
Indeed, we’re expected to take all of the school’s inhabitants as they’re presented to us, without individual back stories or a sense of their lives together before McBurney’s arrival ruptures their supposed peace. Coppola explained that after watching Siegel’s macho version of the story, she was inspired to “flip it” on its head and tell it from the point of view of the women in the house (this raises the question of just how closely she read the original novel, which does just that, the chapters flitting between the perspectives of the different women in the house, but never that of their guest). Surely central to this is a Bechdel Test-friendly exploration of the dynamics of the relationships between the women themselves? Not that Coppola is familiar with this assessment – as we learned in her GQ interview, which strikes me as a shocking gap precisely because she’s one of the few female directors out there who’s in the privileged position of making mainstream, critically-appreciated features; surely the responsibility she admits towards her young female viewers should include making sure she’s at least aware of what it takes to make a feminist film? – so no such luck. Instead, without the necessary exposition, her women are reduced to stereotypes: the innocent, the coquette, the strong Southern matriarch. The film’s leading women work admirably with what they’ve been given – Dunst as the quiet and melancholy Edwina, a very different role to those she’s previously been cast in by Coppola; Fanning’s flirtatious Alicia as the stock Coppola rebellious teenager; and the luminous Kidman a resilient and resourceful mother hen – but ultimately they’re little more than a chain of pretty, but one-dimensional, paper dolls.
Lucy Scholes writes about films and books for a variety of publications, including BBC Culture, the Times Literary Supplement and Literary Hub. She has contributed to Stanley Kubrick: New Perspectives (Black Dog, 2015), and is a commissioning editor at Bookanista. She tweets at @LucyScholes