Virginia, 1863. The Civil War is underway and America is a nation divided in more ways than North versus South or abolition versus slavery. A country in the midst of a war also means the men are away fighting while the women wait for their return. The boys are on the battlefield, and the girls stay in the house.
Sofia Coppola’s reimagination of the 1971 Gothic drama, “The Beguiled,” offers a darkly comedic portrayal of life for a group of women during the Civil War, and just how complicated things get when a man comes into it. The film premiered this May at the Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Palme d’Or. Though it did not win the coveted award, Coppola was awarded “Best Director” for her work. She is the second female director to ever win this prize.
The award was well deserved. What makes the 2017 adaptation of “The Beguiled” watchable is certainly not its simple plot: an injured Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney, is taken in by the few remaining women at the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies in Virginia and tensions rise until they boil over. Despite a plot identical to its 1971 predecessor, the 2017 adaptation tells a different story as a result of Coppola’s directorial choices. It’s the nuanced dialogue, the flawless mise-en-scene, the subtlety of movement and the implications of subtext. By telling the story from the women’s perspective instead of from Corporal McBurney’s (as did the 1971 version), Coppola pivots the implications of a source material which can be construed as misogynistic and demeaning towards women.
The film begins when 12-year old Amy (Oona Laurence, “Pete’s Dragon”) finds Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell, “The Lobster”) alone in the woods and at death’s door. She takes him back to the house, where he is begrudgingly allowed inside by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman, “Big Little Lies”), who insists he can stay to heal. After he is better, they will — they must — hand him over to the Confederate soldiers. After all, they are good, Southern ladies.
They might be good ladies, but they are ladies who have not had the company of anyone, much less an attractive young soldier, in quite some time. Before long, everyone in the house has developed some kind of attachment to Corporal McBurney. For Amy, it is a sweet, innocent crush. For the shy schoolteacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst, “Spiderman”) it is deep, tender love. For the rebellious Alicia (Elle Fanning, “20th Century Women”) it is full out lust. Corporal McBurney capitalizes on this and manipulates the lonely women as best he can, desperate to not be handed back over to the Confederate soldiers.
The film’s slow, calculated pacing uses vignettes to provide a character study of these women and Corporal McBurney as their relationships build. There’s no real “action” until the very end, and even the thrill-filled ending is as dry as the rest of the film. The film reaches its climax when Edwina finds Corporal McBurney in bed with Alicia. Heartbroken and betrayed, Edwina “accidently” pushes him down the stairs. As a result of this “accident,” the women, led by Miss Martha, amputate Corporal McBurney’s leg. When he wakes up and discovers the damage, Corporal McBurney is not just a man scorned. He is a man with a score to settle. A score against the “vengeful bitches” who cut off his leg because he chose Alicia over them.
This final twist — that the women cut off McBurney’s leg as vengeance — is the turning point of “The Beguiled.” It is what has made this story timeless. For a 1971 audience, crazed, sexually repressed women taking their revenge makes for a darkly funny film. For a 2017 audience, however, that interpretation would be met with criticism and disdain. Specifically at Cannes, where Palme d’Or films typically have a greater social, political or ethical commentary attached to the piece. If “The Beguiled” stayed true to its source material, the short-sighted motivations of “vengeful women” during the Civil War would be trite, and the film would not belong at the Cannes Film Festival. It is for this reason that Coppola’s direction of “The Beguiled” is triumphant and that the film held up among its competitors at the Festival.
Without changing the plot, she manages to remove the direct implication that McBurney’s amputation was pure revenge. In its place is a purposefully vague and divisive question. Was it intentional, or was it accidential? Coppola’s adaptation lets viewers decide for themselves both if Edwina meant to push him down the stairs, and if Miss Martha was justified in her amputation of his leg. This version gives new agency of interpretation to both its characters and its viewers.
To beguile means “to charm or enchant in a deceptive way.” Sofia Coppola does just this to her audiences by luring them to the cinema with the appeal of a star studded and cinematically striking Gothic drama. Once the film is underway, she subverts expectations and subtly comments on feminine motivation. The incongruous ending makes it unclear which characters are villainous or heroic. What is clear? That the well-bred, classy women of the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies will do whatever it takes to survive. “The Beguiled” creates a battlefield in a desolate boarding school and the fighters aren’t the men in uniforms.