This summer saw more of the academic-discourse-permeates-pop-culture phenomenon that’s been snowballing for the past few years, especially on social media; one of the most obvious examples of how polarizing it can get was the discourse surrounding Sofia Coppola’s reboot of “The Beguiled.” And yes, I’m still thinking about it several months after the fact — now that the dust has settled (and I’ve wasted even more of my time reading frenetic think pieces) I have a more synthesized idea of why I had such a hard time articulating my irritation with both the film’s critics and champions.
“Beguiled” made Coppola the second woman ever to win best director at the Cannes Film Festival, and several people praised it as the feminist reboot we’ve all been waiting for. Others completely panned it. Always a sucker for a period piece stirring up contention, I walked into the theatre intrigued.
I walked out utterly bemused. Maybe my experience was ruined because my roommate could not stop giggling for the last 45 minutes straight. Or maybe she was right, and I need to look at it purely as if it were played for camp — but based on how many people thought it was either the feminist film of the year or the worst decision Cannes ever made, I don’t think so.
Coppola’s “Beguiled” takes us into the small world of a group of young women at an all-girls boarding school in the South during the Civil War. Within the first few moments of the film, one of the youngest of the girls stumbles upon an injured Union deserter, Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell, “The Lobster”) and brings him home with her to tend to his wounded leg. Most of the girls and young women are fascinated with him, a couple of the younger ones nursing crushes while the oldest girl, Edwina (Kristen Dunst, “The Virgin Suicides”) appears to fall in love, and Alicia (Elle Fanning) appears to be in the throes of a sexual awakening. Both of their efforts are shut down by Martha (Nicole Kidman) who is also more interested in the soldier than she lets on.
There are two reasons, as far as I could tell, why people hailed it as one of the feminist films of the year. For one, Coppola turns the ending of the original slightly on its head, infusing it with a little more confusion and a little more castration revenge fantasy; the women might have the power, the film whispers at you to believe. For another thing, it portrays these young women to have a little more sexual agency than the original. More so-called sexual empowerment.
Many of the loudest critics of the film came at it from a social perspective, rather than a cinematic or aesthetic one. Many scorned the idea that this film chose to omit the one character of color that was in the original, arguing that it made no sense for a film about this period to have no characters of color, particularly slaves — this particular criticism has been responded to by those who argue that including a person of color only as a tokenized bearer of trauma would have signified more harm than good.
There is absolutely valid criticism of the Southern Gothic genre, as well as any Civil War period piece that could miss the mark. But “The Beguiled” is not “Gone with the Wind”; that is, it is not using the Civil War as an aesthetic backdrop to tell a different, romanticized story. Rather, it is — or shall I say, could have been — a microcosmic portrayal of a very particular group of people during this era. It actually wouldn’t be that unlikely for slaves to have run off from a property close to the end of the Civil War, especially if it was an estate without a white man in charge, such as this one. I have read about cases where white women in charge of plantations had freed slaves for no other reason than they were scared of rebellion. So the overall premise that these six young white women in this all-women’s school would be alone and doing their own work isn’t far off the mark.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love the fulfillment of castration fantasies as much as the next girl, and I get the burning desire (no pun intended) to show beyond all measure that women, even young women, also feel sexual desire and had the agency in some ways to act on that, even in the era of the eyelash batting Southern belles. I understand the appeal of the character of Alicia. But that in itself, even if it were believable, wouldn’t be nearly enough to give validation to the idea that this film is feminist. Because at the end of the day, two, if not three, of the main women in the film are ready to throw each other under the bus, desperate and competitive to the point of comicality for his approval and attention.
This film isn’t feminist because it lacks completely the grounding that a true examination of these women’s relationships with each other would’ve looked like. Being alone for months, if not years, terrified every time Union or Confederate men came by, would likely have bonded them so closely together it would be nearly impossible for anyone to come between any two of them, let alone all. These women completely lose their heads over a man; some small sliver of so-called sexual agency is not nearly enough to gloss over that.
There is plenty to enjoy about “Beguiled”: Aesthetically, it’s gorgeous. But a reboot of a film isn’t feminist just because it’s less misogynistic than its original source material, or because it includes a weak attempt at sexual empowerment that honestly only caters to the men — both the man in the film and the male reviewers who think themselves open-minded for praising it as some kind of feminist empower-trip. And there’s plenty to criticize too; but criticism of the film itself as a story based on the historical aspects of it only really works if it is predicated upon accuracy, not value judgements.