Sofia Coppola’s latest feature, The Beguiled (2017), dances directly past the spine of its topic. The disregard for the social-historical context of the film, and the half-cooked characters causes the film to skim over the surface, moving too fast to pierce the many touched-upon membranes of gender, sexuality, race, violence and adulthood. Yet the film was carefully and exquisitely constructed, and was immersive to the last.
This film is to be admired and disdained of in equal parts, an alchemy of dissatisfactions and appreciations.
The Beguiled is a hot-box thriller about a group of women who reside in their overgrown boarding house in the South-east, whilst around them the Civil War rages. When a wounded soldier is found in the woods, they bring him into their home and nurse him back to health so he may be punished ‘adequately’ for his crimes. Adapted from Don Siegel’s The Beguiled (1971), Coppola’s choices have struck up several debates over the balance of gender and race representation on her latest, screen.
Though the film freely explores female sexuality, the characters themselves felt underwritten. Whilst it is refreshing to watch a ninety-minute film instead of an ‘artistically’ drawn-out marathon, The Beguiled’s dialogue felt heavy, as if there was not enough room for the characters to develop their physicality and display their thoughts before they vocalized them. Instead, lines were delivered without any sense of nuance or subtlety (“He liked the mushrooms.”)
If the characters — (John McBurney included) — spoke half as much, perhaps they could have been allowed the screen time to make manifest their desires through movement, image, music, and the symbols which Coppola has long established her skill in wielding. Instead, the film beat a hammer of plot and action down upon the viewer, instead of winding in the conflicts tighter and tighter, so gradual to be nearly unnoticed at first, until coming to a viscous head…
The viewer is left pulled between appreciation for the display of ‘rampant’ female sexuality and desire and ambition, but equally dislike the ill-considered (shallow) catty games between the girls over a man. McBurney’s ambition and desire, reaching beyond the house — towards liberty and longevity, rather than mere sex — far outreach the women’s who seek to stomp upon one another for his affections. From an intelligent and self-aware director, one would hope that there might have been a different explorations of these women’s relationships — yes, catty-games perhaps are reflective of some truths of women’s lives, but there was space equally to appreciate the beauty, independence and resilience of the women’s existence, out on the edges of the wildlands of the South-east. For me, the perpetual saving grace was the wild garden, barely tended by the women — this overripe vision of feminine domesticity and sexuality gone untamed, (reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle ). These women are survivors who have eked out their own space in a savage land, and will kill to defend it.
There is a mythology and cautionary tale near-woven here, yet it is left as a mere hint — the rag, tied by Amy to the front gate at the film’s conclusion, the women’s flag — “territory claimed” is this particular shade of blue…
Even Coppola’s films that occur in the modern era evoke atmospheres and immersion reflective of a period piece. She writes in her own self-made era, one that intersects time and space to vibrate between the French Revolutionto 2000’s Tokyo. That said, though the beauty of her films is consistent, an equal thread of consistency is the ‘safe’ aspects of her films — a disregard for inclusivity, and a failure to interrogate the lack of it.
In The Beguiled, the plot remains barely subcutaneous, toying on the black comedy of the situation. It never became what the trailer made the viewer long for — the tight-wound set piece, a cabin-fever thriller with both macro and micro socio-political themes, where the heat of the South-east and the dilemma are equally inescapable… Yet perhaps the established desires for this film were so antithetical to Coppola’s that, addressed, they would leave no space for the film she had originally written.
The biggest fallacy — the greatest missed opportunity that perhaps could have afforded this film the ‘brunt’ it needed, or the ‘truth’ (shying away from the word depth…perhaps nuance over complexity). Coppola (as with Marie Antoinette ) has habitually ducked away from ‘politics’ in favor of a dreamy ‘lightness’ and to avoid insult or disservice. By doing so she has afforded critics the opportunity to box her in as a writer of ‘women’s indie films’, cinematic candy-hearts, which isn’t entirely true. There is a seed of potency in her portrayal of women, yet superfluities are not interrogated as indicators of confinement or social limitations of gender, but instead act as a sugar coat that cloaks the truths of situations…
Consternation rides on.
SMALL OR BIG SCREEN: Big screen, big time. This film is a visual banquet, biscuits, gravy, apple pie and all.
INCLUSIVITY: As discussed — not good, not good at all. “The slaves all left,” does not adequately interrogate the many lacks in this film.