The Beguiled (Focus Features, 2017)

By Crawford, Cameron Williams | Gender Forum, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

The Beguiled (Focus Features, 2017)


Crawford, Cameron Williams, Gender Forum


1 In the opening sequence of Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled, the camera pans slowly down through the top of a canopy of oak trees, their branches dripping with Spanish moss. When it reaches the trunks, the camera zooms out to gradually reveal the dirt path they line and down which a young girl saunters. A child of about twelve or so, she hums a melody that hovers hauntingly in this secluded, bucolic space. The persistent, pulsing buzz of cicadas fills the air, and the faint but distinctive sounds of rifle fire echo in the background, a distant and vaguely ominous metronome that measures the rhythm of her song. Mist-presumably smoke from those distant rifles-rolls through the trunks of the oaks. The scene is incredibly atmospheric, yet it also serves as a very pointed metaphor for what is really the film's central concern: the diffuse and sometimes impalpable ways that men's actions can seep into the everyday lives of women.

2 This metaphor comes into sharper focus as the scene continues. A flash of text at the bottom of the screen tells us that the setting is 1864 Virginia, three years into the Civil War. The young girl, Amy (Oona Laurence), is foraging for mushrooms when she discovers an injured Union soldier named Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), whom she reluctantly agrees to bring back to the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies. There are no men about, Amy tells McBurney, and "the slaves left"; now, all that remain are headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), and five students. Though Martha's initial instinct is to tie a blue cloth to the gate to alert Confederate soldiers of a captured enemy in their midst, the students agree that "the Christian thing to do" is to at least make sure he does not die first. Instead, they nurse his leg wound and let him convalesce. At first, McBurney is to the girls a mere curiosity, an unfamiliar masculine energy that permeates their wholly feminine space. Martha reminds McBurney, "You are not a guest here. You're but a most unwelcome visitor, and we do not propose to entertain you." However, as his stay at the Farnsworth Seminary carries on, McBurney's masculine energy proves insidious, stirring the girls' erotic desires, enflaming jealousies, and wreaking havoc on the school's previously peaceful, all-female dynamic.

3 A.O. Scott's review of The Beguiled for The New York Times calls the film "in part an essay on the nuances and paradoxes of femininity," and certainly, as in many of her other films (The Virgin Suicides, 1999; Lost in Translation, 2003; Marie Antoinette, 2006), it is a very specific kind of femininity that interests Coppola-willowy, porcelain, and blonde. The Beguiled s extant, Southern Gothic source material gives Coppola a notable stock image by which to further explore what Angelica Jade Bastién calls her "obsession" with "the beauty and fragility of white women": the Southern Belle. As Bastién writes in a review for Vulture, "Overwrought, opulent, and obsessed with their own lineage, they are an easy archetype to romanticize [...] With their delicate disposition and ritualistic approach to beauty, they embody the decadence and sense of tradition that the South likes to believe about itself." This, of course, is assuming "you maintain a blinkered perspective on America's history with race"; as Bastién also points out, "Southern belles are cinema's clearest and most evocative demonstration of the ways white women's status is built upon the subjugation of black women." Sam Biddle similarly writes that, despite the "cheery name," Southern Belles were "a few very specific things: white, bourgeois, and almost certainly beneficiaries of the slave trade, married to the plantation owners whose wealth was secured through black chattel."

4 Since its premiere, The Beguiled has been criticized for its racial politics, lambasted as yet another instance of Hollywood whitewashing. To be sure, for a "narrative that relies on the existence of slavery as an institution" and that claims to interrogate "the gender-based power dynamics of the Confederacy," as Sonia Rao of The Washington Post observes, the conspicuous absence of any characters of color is significant. …

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