clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

In Praise of Sofia Coppola’s Myopia

Like the director’s previous work, ‘The Beguiled’ basks in privilege — but that’s kind of the point

(Focus Features)
(Focus Features)

There’s a repeated image in The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s strange new film, of a young woman looking out on the world through a spyglass. She’s one of a handful of students at Miss Farnsworth’s school for girls, and more than once, we see her peering out from between the imposing front columns of the school’s Virginia plantation toward whatever is beyond — not that there’s much to see, really. There’s the front gate closing the property off from the nearby road. There’s the road itself, occasionally trafficked by Confederate soldiers passing through with injured men and the Union men they’ve captured. And then there’s the true source of the girl’s intrigue: the fog of war. Hovering just above the surrounding tree line are the stark billows of cannon smoke and the constant booms of battle. War is practically on the front stoop. You’d think that’d make a teenage girl, especially one perched within a vulnerable women’s oasis, a little nervous. But honestly? More than anything, she’s bored.

Over the course of Coppola’s 93-minute movie, we’re going to come back, again and again, to moments like this. We’re going to see the young women of Miss Farnsworth’s school peering out from their bedroom windows at what lies beyond. We’re going to see these women arranged in circles: encircled as they pray, again as they learn French or take their stitching lessons, and on and on through their daily lives, eating, performing music, gossiping about each other, hiding from the threat of unknown men. The point of these images is fairly obvious: Miss Farnsworth’s school is a closed-off world, a site of private life — to say nothing of privilege — that deliberately hems these young women in, swaddling them in a columnar sense of order and decorum, as if the calamity of the Civil War could be counteracted with good manners.

There’s not much room for men in a world like this — which is why shit hits the fan once a man shows up. When John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded Union soldier, turns up on the property all bloody and broken from an attempt to flee battle, Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and her only teacher, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), aren’t sure what to do. There’s always the patriotic option: tying a blue ribbon to the front gate, which would alert the nearby Confederate soldiers that there’s a Union soldier inside. This is a Christian school, however, and there’s an example to be set for the younger girls. Also, he’s gorgeous — so they take him in. What unfolds from there is a weird little nugget of a movie, as aware of the broader context of slavery and the Civil War as it is (on the surface) willfully oblivious, a movie as erotically charged as it is dramatically muted. It’s a Sofia Coppola period drama, in other words. What’d we expect?

Coppola’s movie is adapted from Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 book A Painted Devil, which was already made into a movie in 1971 by Don Siegel. Clint Eastwood played McBurney that time around, and he was Peak Hotness Clint: his facial mole perfectly round, his mane suggestively vigorous. His maleness more or less became the subject of the movie. Siegel made a film about a house full of women and girls driven somewhat delirious — entertainingly so — by previously repressed desire. Their regionalized political hang-ups get eroticized as this Union man knowingly becomes an exotic temptation, manipulating the women’s affections one by one. Their ties to each other, meanwhile, get infected by jealousy. Again: Clint was hot. And in Coppola’s version, so is Farrell, whose nude body Farnsworth dutifully hand-scrubs early in the movie, taking note of the dirt and sweat everywhere and trying to keep her eyes trained on his face as her hands travel elsewhere. The movie is shot throughout with a foggy sense of heat that’s accentuated in this moment, a slick stickiness that’s practically airborne.

"Maybe the sight of him will remind us there’s something else in the world besides lessons," says Alicia (Elle Fanning), the oldest student, and the horniest. "It seems the soldier being here is having an effect," says Farnsworth early on, noticing that having a man around has encouraged the girls to spruce up their style. Edwina starts baring her shoulders, one girl steals another’s earrings, and everyone wants McBurney to know who made the delicious apple pie. McBurney, for his part, plays along, going so far as to play these women — to the extent that he can. The endgame is less about sex than it is an escape from the war, which he only joined, fresh off the boat from Ireland, because he was given $300 to take another man’s place. He plays these women like a fiddle, or tries to, and an economy of stolen glances, secret visits, and quiet flirtation gives the movie its backbone.

That sounds like a steamier film than the one Coppola has given us. If Siegel’s movie was hot, Coppola’s is cool, in harmony with her canon, which is rarely outright erotic, even when she’s making films about men and women. Lost in Translation is famously platonic, which isn’t to say sex isn’t on the table; it just has a way of feeling a little beside the point. Coppola is much more interested in the worlds of her women, and of privilege broadly: the boredom of it, the dreamy fantasies that arise in its wake. It’s her sense of privilege as an imposition — rather than as, like, a privilege — that convinces people hers is a "poor little rich girl" cinema. Coppola’s movies don’t interrogate her characters’ entitlement, at least not from the perspective of those who lack the same privileges. Instead, they bask in it, scratching away at the surface from inside.

In this case, that tight focus on the inner lives and outer woes of women like herself has led to a curious omission from Cullinan’s book that has already plagued the movie’s reception. The original novel and the Siegel adaptation both include a slave character — Mattie in the book and Hallie in the 1971 film — that Coppola specifically evacuates from her take on story: "The slaves left," a quick line of dialog at the start of the movie, is all we get. It feels a little too easy. Coppola has said she didn’t want to treat the subject of slavery haphazardly; more dangerously, she’s suggested race is beyond the point. It isn’t beyond the point — see also: the fact that we’re watching an entire movie about white Southern women during the Civil War.

Though it’s hard to excuse — and rightly, if sometimes harshly critiqued — the restrictive view Coppola takes on the surrounding context is what makes the movie stranger and more interesting than I expected. When the movie becomes deliciously violent — I won’t reveal how — we realize just how much of an unlikely refuge, how much of a (white) women’s oasis, Farnsworth’s school really is. There’s a whole world out there, Coppola’s movie tells us. A whole war. And these young women want to see it. But they also want no part of it. We never get exposure to what the war is about or the terms on which it’s being fought — which makes disposing of the explicit reminders of slavery both too neat and eerily revealing. Coppola emphasizes the housework Farnsworth and the girls attribute to being well-bred. She emphasizes the house itself, too, with its staggeringly erect columns and gloomy, spacious halls. The textiles are to die for — and because we spend so many spare moments watching the women shrouded in household chores, there’s a veneer of self-sufficiency underlying everything we see. We don’t see slavery, but we do see the fruits of slave labor — and just as important, we see the domestic labor of free white women, who are still, in this world, limited by being women.

That all makes the movie sound overly serious, when in fact it is unexpectedly funny, amounting, in essence, to a battle of the sexes that spills over into unthinkable — but still kind of funny? — violence. The casting is sharp. Kidman bringing her A-game facade of frostiness, desiring while wanting to appear otherwise. Dunst is equal parts shy and rebellious; Fanning is slyly, recklessly adolescent. The movie is imperfect for its worldview, but not, to my mind, irresponsible. It’s a movie about a specific window on the world, well aware of its specificity. Even as its limits prove disappointing, it makes sense to the movie, I think, that the real story is what’s hovering just beyond the frame.