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A Few Thoughts on Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled

Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is set in 1864, three years into the Civil War, as a helpful subtitle instructs us at the beginning of the movie. The entirety of the film takes place at a secluded girls school in the Virginia wilderness, and there is a quality of Southern gothic here. This is one of those movies that, like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, mostly abstracts away the outside world to focus on the interiority of its small cast and the drama that they confront.

Things get started when the young Jane (played by Angourie Rice), out picking mushrooms in the nearby woods, comes across a wounded Yankee soldier. He has been immobilized by a gunshot to his lower leg, and he will surely die if Jane does not bring him back to the school. She of course does, tipping off a series of events that will comprise the meat of the movie.

Immediately, Miss Martha Farnsworth (played by Nicole Kidman), the middle-aged, authoritative doyen of the school, takes charge of Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), secluding him in the music room and ministering to his wounds. There are some gory shots here of Farnsworth stitching the Corporal up, and she is immediately established as the powerful, worldly, gritty woman opposite Kirsten Dunst’s much more softer, more naive Edwina, who teaches in the school as Farnsworth’s sort of second-in-command.

Coppola wastes no time in getting to the crux of the matter: this is deep in the Confederacy, where a Yankee soldier is certainly not welcome, but it’s been ages since Farnsworth and Edwina have seen a man, particularly a striking, muscular one like the Corporal. After tending to his wounds, Farnsworth declares her intent to wash the Corporal’s body (he is still passed out from his injuries), and predictably her hands continue gravitating toward a certain part of his anatomy.

There is also the young and sexy Alicia (Elle Fanning), a student in the school who is a young woman on the verge of sexual discovery and who is clearly intrigued by the arrival of a man in their midst.

For his own part, the Corporal realizes how precarious his position is, that Farnsworth can hand him over to passing mobs of Confederate soldiers at any time, so he contrives to stimulate the women’s fascination with him. Of course, part of his interest here is in his own sexual desires are clearly coming into play, even as he works to ingratiate himself with the woman as a act of pure survival. Part of the intrigue of these early scenes of the movie is to watch as these characters all strive to define their aims: they are all beguiled to an extent by the ripe sexuality that has suddenly appeared in their lives, but they also have other prominent motives that shape their acts.

It is in the movie’s first half that Coppola’s directing, which netted her the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Director award, is at her best. Virtually none of the film’s communication is done out in the open, instead coming across through doubled meanings, facial expressions, gestures, small acts, and the like. Coppola brilliantly teases out these threads, defining the principal characters’ traits and motives, all while giving an evocative sense of Southern manners and the complex situation of the Civil War. The movie is suffused by a profound aura of femininity, and one very much feels that Farrell’s Corporal is injecting alien elements into the school’s female realm.

On the whole the cast counts seven women all at differing ages form pre-teen to Farnsworth (which I would guess at about 50). Coppola puts together a fascinating and satisfying composite picture of girlhood and womanhood, and there are many small touches throughout that work together to construct a complete picture of femininity, particularly the sense of femininity that existed in the middle of the 19th century amid Southern antebellum culture. Clearly there is some revisionist intent to such a project, as one can’t but help compare the lives of these women to the lives of women today (there was much knowing laughter in the screening I saw), but one also gets the sense of constructing its own world, and one that is not typically seen on the silver screen.

In this way the movie proceeds toward its inevitable crisis point (spoiler alert). For motives that are not entirely clear, the Corporal has been leading Edwina on, to the point where he promises to come into her bedroom after a lush dinner that is meant to be the Corporal’s send-off out of the school and back into the world. Yet, it is obviously Alicia that he wants to bed. And this is where Edwina discovers him in one shocking moment of outrage and hurt, even as she has made herself beautiful and prepared herself to be taken by the Corporal. In the ensuring chaos the Corporal is thrown down a flight of stairs, and he freshly healed leg is broken open again. Farnsworth declares that the only way to save him is to amputate the leg, which she does. When the Corporal next awakes, he flies into a rage, taking the amputation as an act of revenge for him not choosing to come to Farnsworth’s bedroom.

It is in the concluding 30 minutes that follow this scene that Coppola’s The Beguiled begins to break down. The characters that have been so lovingly tended by Coppola now revert to types, caught up in the straightjacket of Farrell’s extraordinarily overwrought rage. So too does the plot, which had been ambiguous and alluring, and now becomes something along the lines of a thriller. The movie concludes with a fairly predictable trajectory, and we are left with something that, fortunately, ends before it does mortal damage to that beautiful first hour, but which still leaves us disappointed that a movie with such promise did not find a better end.

More than anything else, this concluding half hour feels too rushed, the mixture of motives and gestures that made the pre-amputation parts so rich are absent here, and the plot seems to move mechanically toward its solution. The great pleasure in watching The Beguiled is in trying to figure out just what everybody wants, what they are admitting to themselves and to each other, what they are hiding, how much of what they want they’re going to manage to get, and how this weird interlude that has taken control of all their lives will be solved. This is the brilliance of the film, and at its best it is truly great filmmaking. But all of that comes to an end once the Corporal turns into a rage-fueled caricature, where the nuance and mystery and balance of competing emotions is turned into a clear and obvious need to get rid of him by any means.

Coppola’s The Beguiled is something along the lines of a feminist reclamation of the 1971 film of the same name, starring Clint Eastwood. Instead of basing the film around the male character, as the Eastwood The Beguiled does, in Coppola’s the women become the stars, and the world evoked is a feminine one, not a macho one. This is a fascinating idea, and one appreciates the many touches that turn this film from a male point of view into a female one, but ultimately the ending of Coppola’s The Beguiled feels too over-determined to leave a viewer with a lasting impression or a final conundrum to take with you out of the theater.

During my viewing of The Beguiled, the film often reminded me of a couple of movies that left this one weak by comparison. The first is Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, about a pre–Civil War band of naive settlers who are somewhat captive to their macho leader, Meek. As with Coppola’s film, this is something along the lines of a feminist reclamation of a Western macho narrative—the world of women definitely dominates Reichardt’s film, and there is a strong female character who comes to define its plot. But, notably, Reichardt goes much further, engaging the historical narratives that surround Meek’s Cutoff to a much greater degree, and never letting the film resolve into a clear sense of right and wrong.

The Beguiled also made me think of Robert Altman’s 3 Women, a film very much about feminine identity and solidarity, and one whose three principle female characters are set against a male interloper. As with Coppola, Altman very creatively uses the landscape in 3 Women to open up the characters and their traits, and he is also able to open up the female world to the eyes of the viewer. Where Altman overcomes Coppola is in the ending, which opens up the film’s possibilities instead of concluding them, never reverting to type or convention.

On the whole I would probably recommend The Beguiled. There is very much to like and discuss about it, and the visible texture of the film is magnificent. I only wish that Coppola had let her film find the ending that it wanted, instead of assigning it a conclusion that follows typical Hollywood convention.

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