I have an internet connection and wasn’t at Cannes, so the attendant controversies and debates about Sofia Coppola’s new film reached me far before the film itself. Is Coppola a role model for female directors looking to challenge male-centered narratives, or more an example of Hollywood nepotism? Are critics talking about her film differently than if she were a man? Did she “feminize” the Clint Eastwood-Don Siegel original? What, in the context of cinema, does “feminize” even mean, and why should it have to sound like such a controversial word? And did Coppola whitewash history by not including the source material’s only black character, in a story set in the Civil War? The debates above—at least, those that are even worth having—deserve a longer article. Suffice it to say that a good deal of Hollywood history could have used more “feminization”, and the very real problem of Hollywood whitewashing is much more complicated when you’re talking about a film that, unlike, say, Lincoln (2012) or Gone With the Wind (1939), makes no claim to historiography. It’s not set in the South so much as it’s set in a psychosexual snow globe with weeping willows: a thin context papered over a largely unrelated allegory. Whether or not it’s alright to co-opt the aesthetic of an era but ditch its politics is (yet another) much larger debate. For now, I’d much rather discuss the film on its own merits, of which there’s plenty to recommend.
The film opens like a fairy tale, where a young girl from a nearby Southern seminary school ventures into the forest and discovers a wounded Union soldier, whom she brings home. The school is inhabited by a small group of women and touched with austerity. It could be next door to the boarding school in Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) or on the sunnier, non-haunted side of the street from the Victorian manor in The Innocents (1961). In one of the film’s nicer atmospheric details, the war is never seen, just heard via distant rumbling from somewhere far beyond the gates. The divide between Union and Confederate—the time-period accents are iffy—is a dramatic trick, a way of evoking the otherness between men and women. And, pointedly, all the heroines at this school (Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence) are at different stages of life. The film is empathetically tuned to how women in a sheltered place might react around men—fascination, attraction, confusion, fear, misplaced hope—as well as the secrets they might keep and quietly signal out. For what are the alternatives to secrets, except self-denial or throwing yourself forward? “Nous sommes des filles“, the girls are taught to say in a French lesson early in the film, and it makes a none-too-subtle mission statement for anyone with access to Google Translate.
Nicole Kidman’s unsentimental headmistress, in an act that wavers between jaded wisdom and icy repression, tries to keep everyone in check. Naturally, it’s the sort of gothic psychodrama that can only end in violence, and the sedate pace of the opening—potboiler material that isn’t treated like a potboiler—eventually finds a dreamy atmosphere for the final act to shatter. Material like this has been done many times, though knowing what I know of Don Siegel, I doubt his version of the same novel takes the idea of being young and “beguiled” seriously in the same way Coppola does, or arrives at the same conclusion about the bonds between women and the way men will always be outsiders to it. What holds Coppola back is that her characters feel strangely thin, their actions simple and monotone, creating a certain slightness. The material is fascinating, but to reach transcendence, it would need either more richly written characters or a more expressively deranged style. But as for flipping the male gaze, Coppola must be doing something right: in a film populated by women, the only character whom I could never quite get a bead on, never quite understand, is the man.
The Beguiled won the prize for Best Director at Cannes and is now playing at select theaters across the country. In front of me, a wife told her husband that she never reads reviews before going to the movies. Bless her.