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Is The Beguiled sewn up too tightly?

Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock — the 1975 film that set the tonal template for Sofia Coppola’s films — is more powerfully present here than in any of her previous work, even The Virgin Suicides.

Again, we have women and girls in isolation, imprisoned in a vocabulary and colonial culture defined by white men, dutifully acting the roles given them, but each in their own ways struggling to suppress (or indulge) the desire to experience more: freedom, a fuller life, a larger world, love, and, yes, sex.

The young students of Appleyard College in Picnic at Hanging Rock gather before the headmistress.

In Weir’s mysterious masterpiece, the mystery of the Necessary Unknown was that rough, wild, dangerous mountain of red rock, one that occasionally draws men out of their own cultural confinement as well, one that swallows people up in its promise, its awe, and its terror. It represents a kind of transcendence, but there is an ever-present hint of alien menace about it.

The mount of transcendence beckons in Picnic at Hanging Rock.

In The Beguiled, the mountain is a man — a wounded soldier, one who claims to be a corporal on the run — and his menace is made plain in brief glimpses of his smirking superiority, evidence of his assumptions that he can seduce, manipulate, and exploit these women even as he views them with condescension and even contempt. Even though their boarding house looks sophisticated, solid, and pristine in the midst of untended gardens… they are not safe.

But Coppola’s not in a mood to give these tightly-gowned girls any joyful transcendence. This is a Picnic in which transformation will come with the women gaining understanding of their vulnerability and striving to assert themselves on their own terms in relationship with this opportunistic, cruel, carnal Casanova. They will not be played. (Well, most of them won’t. If one of them consents to playing the Corporal’s game, she will decide to accept both the lure and the hook in hopes of being drawn from the murky waters of this limiting world. It’s painful to watch.) This is a story of desire that, when disappointed or thwarted, turns these Southern belles of prim and proper piety into avengers. Hell hath no Furiosas like these virgins scorned.

Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) has his eyes on Alicia (Elle Fanning)… as well as several other beauties in The Beguiled.

The joke has been made in many a review already: Coppola’s first film was The Virgin Suicides — and now she’s delivered The Virgin Homicides. That’s an easy joke, and there’s no denying that this film taps into themes that Coppola’s been exploring since her directorial debut: the loneliness and isolation of women in a patriarchal world; the search for identity in the shadow of a powerful father or husband; the transgressive nature of love in a legalistic world.

But this doesn’t turn out to be the period-piece play on Misery that I expected. In fact, when things do take a turn towards vengeance, I didn’t quite make the turn with the movie. It seemed sudden and extreme. And the film suddenly seemed too determined, too neatly sewn up. The promise of real fireworks is never quite fulfilled.

And while I savored these performances — Kidman and Farrell are brilliant here, and the delightful Oona Lawrence, who was so much more interesting than the dragon in Pete’s Dragon, reprises her role as Mini-Gillian Welch, the most Civil-War-era Period-Piece Child Actor ever born — I couldn’t help but wish for this film to be longer, more expansive, more improvisational, giving these characters more room for discovery.

What this film seems to be missing is something that has characterized all of Coppola’s film so far: breathing room, and the sense that she is exploring and experiencing surprises in the creative process. That’s too bad. There was certainly a sense of exploration and discovery in Picnic at Hanging Rock, just as there was in the other revisionist-history period piece that would make a great double feature with this movie: Kelly Reichardt’s Western: Meek’s Cutoff. As the credits rolled for The Beguiled, I found myself wanting to revisit both of those films.

For all of its glorious context (the juxtaposition of the school’s white columns and the lichen-heavy, mist-clouded woods all around is frightfully enchanting), the movie — which won Coppola the Best Director award at Cannes this year — is so bound to its plot that I never sensed in its maker (nor experienced myself) a single surprise. Perhaps that’s because it’s a remake, and Coppola didn’t feel so free to explore new territory. Whatever the case —that sense of being strapped into the tyranny of a narrative is a first for this big fan of Sofia Coppola’s essential, personal, poetic, and — yes — beguiling cinema.

Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) leads her anxious community in prayer in The Beguiled.

Still, there is so much here to enjoy. In this summer season of “fast food” and disposable “blockbusters,” The Beguiled is a rich dessert, served in a small but satisfying portion, as delicious in its presentation as in its substance. I loved the dialogue for its delectable double-entendres and simmering suggestiveness. When McBurney is dragged into the house by these well-dressed beauties, he mumbles “Grateful to be your prisoner” — and we know he means it. And when Miss Martha’s infatuated students learn the Corporal’s name, we know that even she doesn’t believe what she says in response: “He’s not going to be here long enough for his name to make any difference to us.” Later, as McBurney is recovering from his injuries, he observes that the untended gardens all around him “need” the attention of a man. As if that isn’t loaded enough, Miss Martha answers, “I appreciate your desire to be active.”

Now that is my kind of hot-summer moviegoing.

P.S.

Regarding the complaints that this film doesn’t take slavery seriously, or that it ignores the issue altogether…

One of the opening moments explains that, at this stage of the war, the slaves have departed the plantation. And that figures hugely in the women’s predicament. That’s why they’re shown making feeble and failing attempts to regain control of the property, pathetic in their attempts to beat back the rising influence of natural forces (without and within). When they don’t have someone to control and manipulate, they lose their identities.

This is not a film celebrating and glorifying angry women empowered.

This is a film about the insufficiencies of both men and women to experience meaningful relationship with each other or the world within such a confining, prescriptive, hierarchical culture. The absence of the slaves in this film reveals the consequences of racial and cultural arrogance in the South, and how they don’t know who they are or what to do with themselves if they can’t feel superior to someone.

While it might have been interesting to expand this story and involve the characters of slaves more directly, that would have been an altogether different story, meaning different things and taking different turns. This is one variation on an intriguing premise. It has its weaknesses, but I don’t think racism — on the part of the storyteller, anyway — is one of them.

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4 Comments

  1. anonymous
    July 9, 2017 at 7:09 am — Reply

    Anthony Lane notes that, in the 1971 version, there is a black slave at the school, Hallie (Mae Mercer)….McBurney relates to her as much as to the other girls, and says “You and I ought to be friends. We’re both kind of prisoners here.”

    • July 9, 2017 at 8:48 am — Reply

      Yes, Karen Whitehill, there is a slave character in the original. There is an intriguing discussion about how and why the films are different on this point in this episode of Filmspotting. It features Josh Larsen (author of Movies are Prayers, and editor of ThinkChristian.net) and Angelica Jade Bastien (who writes for Vulture), a critic who speaks with a lot of wisdom about race in film. It’s interesting to hear Bastien, who is African American, defend Coppola’s choice.

  2. anonymous
    July 9, 2017 at 2:32 pm — Reply

    Okay then! You might want to check spelling of Fuirosas…

  3. Russell
    July 11, 2017 at 9:58 am — Reply

    While I totally agree with your comments about the movie being a little to sewn up, for me, this movie has a little more ‘bite’ when I think of it displaying the beguiling and infectious nature of sin and our (futile) means of addressing it. He/sin begins ‘crouching at the door’ where your conscience flares yet you convince yourself that it is safe. “We surely will not die. This is the christian thing to do, right?” Once he is inside, all the girls begin to like the way it feels. The younger more innocent girls begin imitating the older women who should know better. “I like this; he is promising me a hopeful future, an escape. The enemy isn’t as bad as we thought.” Only when he doesn’t deliver on the lie they believed, are drastic measures taken to to eliminate the problem. As if the enemy can so easily be destroyed and placed outside the gates in a pure white cloth. “Make sure your stitches are straight.” It is all about the outward appearance. For all the searching from the balcony ‘for the enemy’ that is supposedly outside, yet never seen beyond the gates, the girls certainly missed truly where to look. Makes you wonder what might still be lurking inside. “For it is what comes from the inside that defiles a man (or, in this case, a school of women)…”

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Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet

Novelist and critic Jeffrey Overstreet teaches writing (Seattle Pacific University) and film studies (Northwest University and Houston Baptist University). He's written a memoir of moviegoing and faith (Through a Screen Darkly, Baker, 2007) and a fantasy series that begins with Auralia's Colors (The Auralia Thread, Random House, 2007-11). He's worked since 2001 as a film critic and columnist at Christianity Today, and he's been a regular contributor to Image, Paste, and Christ & Pop Culture. His writing has been recognized by The New Yorker and The Seattle Times. He regularly speaks at universities, conferences, and churches in the U.S. and abroad. Want to invite him to teach or speak? Email joverstreet@gmail.com.