Film Review: The Beguiled
Sunday, July 16, 2017
**Spoilers below! **
Beguile: Verb. To charm or enchant (someone), sometimes in a deceptive way.
By and large, my favorite kind of movies and stories always point back to the human experience. There doesn't necessarily have to be a complicated plot in order to entice me. I love to explore the internal space where most of us live our ordinary lives, even if the setting is not specifically familiar to me.
The Beguiled is such a film. It is set in a time and culture foreign to me yet it centers around the exploration of the all too human emotions of jealousy, loneliness, revenge, fear and lust.
The story is set in an all girl's school in Virginia during the waning years of the Civil War. It's based off of the novel with the same name written by Thomas P. Cullinan. There is also a 1971 film adaptation which stars Clint Eastwood.
One large criticism that has come at the director, Sofia Coppola, is that she omits the black slave character, Mattie, form the original novel. It's a valid criticism to raise, but I can understand where Coppola is coming from after reading her response. In an Indie Wire article she talks about how historically it was accurate that at that point in the war many of the slaves had left the plantations they were enslaved on, leaving many white women to fend for themselves: "I wanted to tell the story of the isolation of these women, cut off from the world and in denial of a changing world. I also focused on how they deal with repression and desire when a man comes in to their abandoned world, and how this situation affects each of them, being at different stages of their life and development. I thought there were universal themes, about desire and male and female power dynamics that could relate to all women...I did not want to perpetuate an objectionable stereotype where facts and history supported my choice of setting the story of these white women in complete isolation, after the slaves had escaped. Moreover, I felt that to treat slavery as a side-plot would be insulting. There are many examples of how slaves have been appropriated and "given a voice" by white artists. Rather than an act of denial, my decision of not including Mattie in the film comes from respect."
The question them becomes: is it irresponsible and unfair to tell a Civil War story that does not include a race narrative and is not from the point of view of the slave? I don't know that there is an easy answer to this question. I'm not sure that by simply telling a Civli War story from a different, historically accurate point of view with the focus being male/female dynamics automatically and completely diminishes the voice of the slave in and of itself. I think intent and motive are important, and from what Coppola said, it seems clear to me that she didn't want to use a slave character as a side piece to advance a narrative that wasn't meant to fully explore slavery and it's devastating effects. That being said, I get the sense that the fact that Coppola didn't intend to offend is beside the point. If something is insensitive to someone or a group of people, even if done or said unintentionally, the compassionate thing to do is listen. And what I hear is that black people feel misrepresented, underrepresented, or not represented at all by and large in politics and policy and history lessons and media. What I am hearing is that the black community feels frustrated by the lack of basic awareness, respect and validation of their history. That's a well founded frustration, and it's becoming clearer and clearer that there needs to be more stories told from the perspective of the black community and experience.
I'm going to delicately move on to the film as it is to explore what I felt was a careful and entertaining exploration of what happens within a group of women when a lone man enters the scene.
The school is run by Miss Martha Farnsworth (played by Nicole Kidman.) Due to the war, only five girls and one teacher (Miss Edwina Morrow, played by Kirsten Dunst) remain. The youngest pupil, Miss Amy (everyone is addressed as "miss") is out foraging for mushrooms when she stumbles upon a badly injured Union soldier, Corporeal John McBurney (played by Colin Farrell) sitting against a tree. She is startled, but engages him in conversation and agrees to help him back to the school as it's "the Christian thing to do." The sudden presence of testosterone causes quite the stir amongst the ladies. Though everyone is intrigued by his sudden arrival, there are fractures within the group as to what to do with him. Elle Fanning's Miss Alicia is stand offish and judgmental, insisting he be turned over to the Confederate Army, but in the end Miss Farnsworth decides to let him stay until his leg has had a chance to heal. He is placed in the music room, the door locked shut from the inside, and thus the beguiling begins.
Before Mr. McBurney arrived, the girls practiced their French in the sweltering Virginia humidity, tended to the garden, and gathered together for nightly prayers. Though you can hear cannons in the distance and the occasional parade of soldiers passes by, their daily lives are mostly unaffected by the war. The girls are sequestered from anyone else and largely bored, it seems. After McBurney's arrival, brooches and pearls appear on necks, the fancy dresses are worn to dinner, cheeks are pinched to appear rosy, apple pies are baked. Each of the ladies are tiptoeing around each other, literally and figuratively, to catch glimpses of and interact with McBurney while in turn McBurney is toying with all of them. The only one that seems to understand his game, however, is Miss Martha.
Nicole Kidman perfectly depicts a raging internal battle--she skillfully walks the line between a lonely woman aching for companionship, simple human touch and a no nonsense, polite, religious, unquestionably in charge headmistress. Yet her control begins to waver a bit as McBurney gains traction with the girls (though you can be sure that by film's end, everyone knows who the Queen Bee is.) Miss Martha is also tasked with the sticky situation that is created by his being on the other side of the war effort, but that dilemma is not the true focus of the film. The conflict lives within the walls of the school and the ladies themselves. In the first act (the film is divided into three) right after McBurney is brought to the school, Miss Martha orders everyone out of the room so she can bathe McBurney and clean his wound. In a wordless scene, Nicole Kidman delivers an emotionally powerful performance as she wipes his nearly naked, unconscious body down. It was oddly erotic but not weird, not out of place--within the context of the story, the character and the contradictory nature of what it is to be human, it landed. Here we have a Christian women tending to a sick soldier, while at the same time realizing how much she has missed the body of a man. The scene ends with a deep breath, a look in the mirror and a splash of water on her face.
Though there is much about this film that is gothic and suspenseful, there is also humor within the competition. The dinner scene where McBurney joins the women for the first time is tense and hilarious at the same time. Each girl is vying for McBurney's attention. The school tart, Miss Alicia (Elle Fanning sprinkles in giggles like a pro), steals flirtatious glances and sweetly croons in her southern drawl: "I hope you like apple pie." Miss Edwina then asks innocently: "Is that my recipe?" McBurney looks on, amused, while I can't help but laugh at the absurd reality of it all. Meanwhile, Miss Martha sits at the head of the table and takes notice of Miss Edwina's dress and thus her bare shoulders. After a bit of back and forth, Miss Martha says: "I would suggest we change the subject...and that Miss Edwina draws her shawl. That would avoid any more speculation on the subject." Miss Alicia then adds with sulk: "There might be other attractive shoulders here if we were all permitted to wear such dresses." In between all this, the camera is cutting from actress to actress and the subtle tight smiles and death stares are pure gold. There is so much going on beneath the surface of the poised and polite veneer.
The tension reaches a fever pitch when McBurney is discovered in Miss Alicia's bed by Miss Edwina, who had thought he would be coming to her. She had even gotten out her fancy nightgown. In shock, Miss Edwina backs away as McBurney is trying to reach out to her, assuring her he still loves her. But Edwina is having none of it and pushes him down the stairs. McBurney falls and we discover he breaks his leg, we see blood and bone sticking out. He is unconscious. Miss Martha takes control and decides quickly that his leg must be amputated because he was losing too much blood. In her white nightgown now stained red all down the front, she barks orders at a whimpering Miss Edwina, telling her: "I need rags, I need chloroform. Go to the smokehouse, get the saw, now." Before Act 2 blacks out she says: "And Edwina, bring me the anatomy book."
While this scene, and that last line in particular, was captivating to watch, I'm not sure I buy it. I was not convinced that Miss Martha would cut his leg off, it felt like an unlikely and rash decision for her character, a firmly established un-rash woman. Up to that point, there wasn't enough motive established for her to do it out of spite or revenge, and a broken leg doesn't seem a severe enough situation to warrant amputation. Was he really losing blood that fast? Why not at least try to set it first? It seems that what Sofia Coppola was trying to do was to make this seem like an act of revenge towards McBurney for not choosing Martha as his lover, but it felt rickety to me. On the other hand, maybe Martha just snapped. Given the war and the circumstances of incredible tension that lived in that house, there is some plausibility there.
The film takes on a decidedly harsher, more violent turn after this. McBurney wakes up and is furious when he discovers what's been done to him: "What have you done to me, you vengeful bitches!" The girls are, understandably, all on edge. Miss Edwina tries to talk to him, but he won't hear her. Miss Alicia likewise, but he just grabs her by the hair and demands she get him the key to get out of the room. Stupidly, she grants his request. He gets out and gets a hold of the gun and terrorizes the house. With all the girls huddled on a couch he rants and waves the gun around before going back to his room. And then Edwina finally makes a decision for herself rather than scampering around like a mouse--she marches out of that room with a look of defiance at Miss Martha and goes directly to McBurney, shoves a table in front of the door, and offers her body to him.
While those two are letting off some steam, Miss Martha tries to figure out how to be rid of McBurney. One of the girls suggest mushrooms for dinner as he loved the last batch, but maybe some special mushrooms. That evening, all of the girls except for Miss Edwina are already assembled around the dinner table in their fancy frocks, waiting for the two lovebirds. McBurney accepts the mushrooms onto his plate and promptly begins feeling the effects, choking and gasping for breath while Miss Martha stares directly at him, a slight smile on her face.
How about them apples?
This story was dark and twisted and beautiful, an exploration of the male and female dynamic when thrust into emotionally heightened situations. Not to be missed either is that this was just a gorgeous film to look at. It had an ethereal, almost ghostlike feel to it--the Spanish moss, the natural and candle light, the large white columns. The visual beauty pitted against the simmering rivalries provided a nice juxtaposition, one that added to the tension.
The film ends with a frame of all the girls gathered on the porch around McBurney's body, as seen from behind the gate. The camera slowly moves towards them, getting a tighter and tighter shot. Edwina is depressed, they are all emotionally exhausted, but there is no question as to who runs the world.