Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning, Kirsten Dunst
As I’ve said before, titles matter. They often tell the audience exactly what to expect, or give a hint as to the premise of the piece. So when I went to see The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s entry into Southern Gothic, my primary question was who was beguiled and by whom? Having seen the film, it’s not at all clear what the answer to my question is.
Set towards the end of the Civil War the film tells the story of a wounded and deserting Union soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), who is taken in by the inhabitants of a Girl’s School. At first reluctant to aid an enemy soldier, the women and girls, led by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) warm up to the charming Irish immigrant as he convalesces from his wounds. Suddenly confronted with the presence of an attractive and charming man, Miss Farnsworth, head teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), and senior student Alicia (Elle Fanning), each in turn fall into flirtations with McBurney.
This, of course, ends badly. McBurney attempts to convince Edwina to run away with him, but the night before leaving is discovered in Alicia’s bed. The ensuing argument ends when McBurney falls (or is pushed) down the stairs shattering his leg and leading to its amputation.
For those who don’t know, The Beguiled is a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood film, and in accepting the task of remaking an already well received film, Copola announced her intention to tell the story from the women’s perspective, as opposed to that of McBurney’s.
This is key to the interpretation of the film, because we see the decision making in taking his leg. The leg is fractured beyond the ability of the women to repair. Amputation is the most reasonable way to save McBurney’s life, and it seems clear when the women tend to the unconscious McBurney, despite his transgressions, that saving his life is at least Miss Farnsworth intent, and likely Edwina’s.
Such insight makes McBurney’s anger at having lost his leg, and his accusations that taking his leg was punishment for choosing Alicia, seem monstrously ungrateful. These women cared for him as best they could even when he had wronged them, and taken advantage of a student. McBurney is not a good man, and even though we already knew this (he is a deserter, he clearly is attempting to seduce all three women) his violence towards those who care for him drives the point home with clarity.
This may lead us to conclude that it is the women who are beguiled, charmed into believing McBurney to be desirable. After all, he tries to play each of them, even telling the too young to seduce Amy that she is his favorite. And even after his fall, both literal and figurative, Edwina is still willing to be with him, having sex with him and promising to leave with him when he finally does go. Clearly she is still beguiled.
Something about this is far too easy, however. So I am forced to asked even given all of this, in what way could McBurney, despite being despicable in his own right, still be the one who is beguiled? Could it be the case that for all of his apparently cheap, but effective seduction lines, for all of his violence, that McBurney is never actually in control?
The first point in favor of this reading is the ending. McBurney is invited to a farewell dinner (again) wherein he apologizes and he and Edwina announce their intentions to leave together. This plan goes awry when the women of the house, minus Edwina, serve McBurney poisoned mushrooms and he dies.
That McBurney let’s his guard down so easily in the presence of these women he has wronged seems in itself an argument that he is taken in by their façade of civility and charm. This after it has already been said that there is nothing more dangerous than a southern woman with a gun. More than this, however, is the role Edwina plays.
She has cast her lot with McBurney, but why? It’s somewhat easy to say simply that she is still under his spell and sees in him an opportunity to fulfill her desire to run away to a new life away from the sheltered existence of a finishing school teacher. It’s even implied that her past as a belle of Southern society is what marks her as out of place with the other women. This is unconvincing given the nature of the school. In truth the film doesn’t offer more of an explanation as to why she still casts her lot with him.
McBurney at one point says she is different from the rest, as out of place in the school as he is, and this seems to be the key to opening her to falling for him. As presented McBurney’s insight into Edwina has little basis, but it makes a lot more sense if one knows Edwina’s original description as being mixed race as explained in the book that the film is based upon.
Coppola has taken criticism for white-washing The Beguiled, and in this particular instance I think it matters to story-telling. Edwina should be a mixed race woman existing in a world of Southern hostility toward mixed race people. There are several vague reminders that the women of the finishing school are in support of the Confederacy, and we can never forget that the defining characteristic of the Confederate cause was the preservation of slavery. We are told early on that the women in fact did own slaves, but they ran off as the war came to the school. In the book, there was one remaining slave in the school which Coppola also eliminated from the script, which would have brought this tension to the fore.
As it is, however, the tension of race is absent from the film, and consequently makes the context of the Civil War essentially one of poor northern (classless) immigrants, versus the gentility and nobility of the antebellum Southern woman. How different this film would be if we were forced to confront the reality of the role of race! At such a point, Edwina throwing her lot with the deeply flawed northern soldier who promises a life at his side (despite evidence to the contrary) over and against a life of second class status in a cruel racial hierarchy. The story becomes a beautiful microcosm of the struggle for racial equality in these United States, racial minorities forced to choose between a condescending liberalism that doesn’t live up to its billing or the outright hostility and violence of Southern racism. “Let’s show him Southern hospitality,” as Alicia says, might better be phrased as “Southern hostility.”
With a mixed race Edwina we can see the contrast between the women of the South, on face refined, but hiding the terrible reality of human debasement, juxtaposed with an uneven Union, promising everything to everyone, while constantly disappointing out of its own sense of debased desire, only in the end to be charmed and poisoned by the very South that had been mortal enemy a short time before.
With Dunst in the role of Edwina however, Coppola gives us the watered-down, race-free version of the Civil War that contemporary Confederate flag enthusiasts would prefer. But more than this, the story is told in such a way as to have us the audience rooting for the South!
So who is beguiled? In the end I think it’s the audience, charmed into the sanitized version of the “Lost Cause” too many white supremacists would have us envision. If Coppola did this on purpose, as a kind of massive irony directed at the audience, then it is genius. Unfortunately, I have no reason to believe that, and instead believe Coppola’s enchanting film participates in a white-washed narrative of American history, and consequently risks leading its viewers to the doomed conclusion that the class and refinement of the South was something worthy of being preserved. The Beguiled is yet another in a long line of films, including Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind that reminds us when it comes to Hollywood films set against the Civil War, we must never let our guards down.