Sofia Coppola has made an incredible career out of documenting boredom. A constant of nearly every single one of her feature films is the sense of complete and utter boredom, and desire to do something – anything. The Lisbon girls from The Virgin Suicides are driven to horrendous acts, partly because of their parents rigorous control but also because they live a life of captivity. Nothing to do, no books to read, no-one to see. Lost In Translation’s Charlotte and Bob are held in a linguistic limbo, and their inability to communicate with those around them leads to incredible bouts of boredom. Meeting each other alleviates that. The teenagers of The Bling Ring are lead by temptation yes, but also a desire to do anything different, anything that gets them out of their boring lives.
The Beguiled then is a true Sofia Coppola film. Six young girls and two women, alone in a huge school house at the height of the American Civil War. They’ve been stuck for three years, none able to go home for various reasons. They are occasionally visited by Confederate soldiers, but they mostly have only each other for company and are left to their own devices.
The first time Elle Fanning’s Alisha is introduced, we can feel this numbness and ennui creeping into the school house through every dilapidated wall and window. The girls are in a french lesson. Schoolteacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) lists off variations from the blackboard. The other two girls are sharply repeating phrases, but are less than engaged with the process. There is a sense that they have done this before, many times. Alisha drums her fingers on the desk, her repetitions are a beat behind the other girls. She is stuck, and bored out of her teenage mind. The arrival of wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), slaps them all awake from their monotonous lives – with unforeseeable consequences.
Alisha and Edwina represent this idea of boredom and desire for something else that is wound tightly throughout The Beguiled, but at opposite ends of the spectrum. Edwina is naively obsessed with McBurney , to the point at which she can’t see how much of a fool he is making out of her. Comparatively, Alisha feels in control of her desire. It is, after all, McBurney who comes to her room as opposed to Edwina who goes looking for him, during the most climatic scene.
All of the women, including stern headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) see McBurney as an escape of sorts. For Edwina, he is a physical escape. For Martha, he is an intellectual equal. For Alisha, he is sexual desire. McBurney may be exploiting their desires for him, but there is also manipulation on their part. Their collective desire for the war to be over and to be freed of the repetitive lives they live are realised in McBurney. Miss Martha allows him to stay, knowing that it is not the right thing to do, because he signifies a change in the schoolhouse, a change in their situation.
This fatigued repetition is visually communicated by Coppola returning to the same or similar shots over and over again. Beautifully composed, yet repeated shots of the front of the house, mist seeping through the trees in the mornings, light glimmering through the bushes in the evenings. There is a series of shots of Jane, each slightly different, out on the veranda peering through her spyglass. At one point during The Beguiled, a day is represented by early morning sunshine streaming through a window, followed by a shot of the schoolhouse in the evening sun. Every day is the same. That is, until McBurney.
The strength of The Beguiled comes from Coppola’s deliberate focus on the present. There are very few details about any of the characters backstories, or anything that could deter us from the moment in front of us. Not allowing the audience to learn much about just one character is fitting as it allows a more objective view of the situation. Rather than feel sympathy for any one of the characters, we are encouraged to see the situation for what it is. In a way, this allows us to take a step back from the narrative and allows us to identify with multiple characters (often those who are on opposing sides) and the choices of almost every single character (including McBurney because we aren’t on a singular journey.
The cheating, lying and indiscretions seem to be spurred on by the background of war rather than any individual characters backstory. The sound of bombing is ever present in the distance, the presence of soldiers in and around the house is almost continuous. Though McBurney is not wearing a uniform, he is a constant reminder to the women that they are surrounded by war on all sides. The Beguiled depicts the war as having penetrated their feminised space inside the house, with the arrival of McBurney.
A review of the The Beguiled would not be complete without at least mentioning the lack of black characters, particularly black women. Coppola’s version of The Beguiled does not feature Hallie, the black slave character from the original text. Coppola was criticised for this decision, and tried to justify it by explaining that she didn’t want to trivialise the slave narrative. Whilst Coppola’s intentions seem honest (if not a little naive), there is no denying that a film about America’s Deep South at the the time of the Civil War feels very uncomfortable without even one black character. The ‘slaves’ are mentioned once, and then never spoken of again.
It’s interesting that Coppola, a white woman, distinguishes the stories of women and POC into two distinct categories, not once accepting that Hallie’s character was also a woman. Her story didn’t need to be reduced to just a ‘slave narrative’. Coppola has said that she wanted to tell the story of The Beguiled from the perspective of the women in the film, unlike the original. She has succeeded, but to erase Hallie’s story is the erasure of black women from the sphere of what a woman’s story consists of.
The Beguiled feels like Sofia Coppola’s most technically accomplished film to date. It’s stylistically consistent, the performances are phenomenal (especially from Kidman) and it’s exploration of sexuality, desire and boredom feels new and exciting. It will be a career defining film for its director, but releasing the film has also shown Coppola’s true ideas about diversity and inclusion. The Beguiled sticks closely to Coppola’s previous films about the struggles of white women, and she shows no sign of branching out from this territory. That’s not to say The Beguiled is a ‘bad film’, but it certainly doesn’t make it a feminist one either.