THE BEGUILED: Coppola’s Most Accomplished Film So Far?

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.

LFF Round-up: 13th

An exploration of the prison system and race in the US, 13th takes it’s name from the 13th amendment. To paraphrase, the amendment states that the restriction on rights associated with slavery will not be upheld for any citizen in the United States, except those who have committed a crime. Safe in the hands of the extremely talented Ava Duvernay, 13th paints an astonishing and appalling picture of the longstanding systematic racism that has led to 1 in 3 black men being incarcerated at some point in their lives. From the slavery, to the phenomenon that is mass incarceration, Duvernay produces a compelling documentary that screams out for change.

I don’t pretend to know much about the legal system in the States (equally I know very little about it in my own country) so the first thing that struck me about 13th was how accessible it is for a uninformed audience. Roughly chronologically, Duvernay takes us on a journey from the tail end of slavery, segregation, through various Government administrations right up to present day legislation – all through the lens of ‘law and order’. A commonly used phrase, as we see, and one that has been used time and time again to justify racist legislation. 13th uses infographics combined with archive and interviews in order to explore the racism inherent in the criminal justice system under the guise of ‘law and order’. For someone who is aware of the issues, but has little understanding of how it got the point we are at today, the film is saturated with information, as well as being visually and emotionally compelling.

Without giving too much away (because it’s far better to listen to people like Angela Davis, Marie Gottschalk, Jelani Cobb etc talk about this, than to read my words on it), there are some jaw-dropping statistics. The United States makes up 5% of the world’s population, yet 25% of the world’s prisoners are in the States. Likewise, 1 in 3 black men in the United States will, at some point in their lifetime, do prison time. 13th charts the rise of the prison population from the Nixon era (ending in 1974) to the end of the Clinton administration (2001), where we see the prison population of America basically quadruple in size.

It’s very easy for documentaries to spout statistics, but without context and explanation they are essentially meaningless. Duvernay validates these disturbing figures by surrounding them with interesting and articulate interviews with a wide variety of professionals, academics, senators and activists – many of whom have been on the front-line of this battle. Davis is one of the most emotive interviewees, her words made stronger by archive footage of her arrest in 1970. She talks at length about the crimes being done to black communities, the level of systematic violence directly targeted at black men and women. Her words, though 45 years old now, are still so relevant today.

The word ‘criminal’, and it’s association with black folk, recur several times throughout the film – exploring how the word ‘criminal’ is now interchangeable with black people. Of course it’s incredibly important to have an understanding of where this came from, and how society (black and white alike) have been conditioned to see the black population of the US as criminals. There is a segment of the film which focuses on analysing the DW Griffith film, The Birth of a Nation, a film which is full of racism and bigotry – but a film that was still being heralded as a masterpiece when I attended film school (only a few years ago). The Birth of a Nation is often talked about in these terms, being one of the first films to use the editing techniques we still see today in cinema, yet it’s representation of black people (all played by white actors in blackface) is key in understanding how society views race today. They are presented as criminals, rapists, degenerates. Did you know that the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan was a direct result of the release of The Birth of a Nation? I didn’t…

Duvernay concludes the film in the present day – with talk of what comes after mass incarceration, and the work that the Black Lives Matter movement do on a daily basis. Though the footage of victims of police brutality (Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice amongst many, many others) have been shown repeatedly on media networks, watching them in the context of the film is a very different experience. This footage, shot on mobile phones, is even more horrific (if that’s possible) when we have just seen the complete history of state sanctioned violence against communities of people. There is raw emotion behind these sequences, the strong editing giving the film real conviction in it’s message.

A lot of reviews (Guardian, LA Times)  have described 13th as ‘fiercely angry’, yet I feel this undermines the incredible work that has been done here. Describing it as ‘angry’ only plays into lazy stereotypes of black people (black women in particular) – irrationally angry. Naturally there is a lot of anger around the subject, but the film itself is calm, collected and polished. It speaks to both those who have an understanding oppression and institutional racism, and to those who are coming to the film with no previous knowledge of it.

13th is an accomplished documentary speaking out about a taboo topic. It’s controversial and incredibly important. Every interview, every animation is detailed and precise – and it definitely warrants a second viewing. Duvernay, though propelled to fame for her fiction films, draws heavily on her past in documentaries and has produced a stunning film.  I’ve barely scraped the surface talking about it here, it is really one you should see for yourself.

To learn more about the Black Lives Matter movement, click here.