Slavery Exists In "The Beguiled," Whether Sofia Coppola Depicts It Or Not
The Beguiled is artful in depicting the myth of the sanctity of white womanhood as both protection and restriction. But why does it need to excise slavery in order to do so?
The Southern belles of Sofia Coppola’s half-brilliant, half-infuriating The Beguiled have a tendency to fall into elegant tableaux, as if posing for some 1861 version of a Vanity Fair Hollywood issue that’s even less diverse than usual. When they gather in the parlor by candlelight for nightly prayer, they look like they’re restaging a painting. When they cluster around a piano to provide musical entertainment for John McBurney (Colin Farrell), the wounded Union soldier who simultaneously becomes their prisoner/gentleman caller, they arrange themselves in postures that look carefully rehearsed, long skirts draping elegantly, even the brunettes giving off an aura of willowy blondeness.
Like the Lisbon sisters in Coppola’s 1999 directorial debut The Virgin Suicides, who had a similar tendency to meld into one dreamy object in the eyes of observers, the characters in the moodily subdued The Beguiled accrue a kind of power when appearing as a collection — it lends them mystique, and can make them seem like more than the sum of their independent parts. All it costs is the sting of surrendering their identities as individuals. But as individuals, they are two adults and five girls with nowhere else to go, the remaining population of the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies in Virginia three years into the Civil War.
It’s an institution whose fripperies look frivolous and a little foolish with guns rumbling on battlefields nearby. The school’s headmistress, Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), and teacher, Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst), oversee and live alongside the last few students: coquettish Alicia (Elle Fanning), Confederate loyalist Jane (Angourie Rice), earnest Amy (Oona Laurence), and the less defined Marie (Addison Riecke) and Emily (Emma Howard). They strive mightily to maintain a sense of normalcy, continuing with their French and embroidery lessons while the world shakes apart around them.
The bubble of fussy propriety in which they exist isn’t denial so much as a kind of protective performance of gentility — they’re women and children living in a combat area from which their army is retreating. Taken alone, they’re vulnerable, but taken as a group, with their white dresses and white skin in their their white house with white columns tucked in the midst of old trees, they seem to be attempting to shield themselves by becoming a symbol of sheltered 19th-century Southern womanhood. They aren’t merely clinging to a dying past (despite Martha’s romanticized reminiscences about a time when her father's parties would fill the house with attendees in finery); their daily routine feels more like an act of desperate conjuring, an affirmation of their own worth, a way to demand decorum from anyone who comes through the school’s gate by insisting that that is the only conceivable way to treat them.
Coppola has always been fascinated by comfortable, cloistered spaces. She's devoted most of her alternately praised and maligned filmmaking career to exploring the existences of the advantaged (if not always happy) white women who tend to reside within them, and in that, The Beguiled is no different. The Farnsworth Seminary is a place where girls are sent to be prepared for pampered lives of decorative domesticity, to go from being the doted-on daughters to the well-bred wives of powerful men. Its faculty and students spark to life when McBurney arrives, like a theater company finally getting an audience — no accident, when the playacted femininity in which they’ve been tutored is dependent on male attention and compliance.
But so, too, is their safety, hinging on the women’s ability to evoke the restrictive but protective societal order from which they came, even as it threatens to crumble away. The stakes of all that girlishness have never felt higher in a Coppola film, and the boundaries of the privilege its characters enjoy have never felt so fragile — not even at the end of Marie Antoinette, in which Dunst’s oblivious, doomed queen is chased by rioters from Versailles. The female characters of The Beguiled are neither as tightlaced nor as delicate as they present themselves — Martha, the most proper and wasp-waisted of them all, plucks metal shards out of McBurney’s leg herself in an early scene, then sews the torn flesh shut — but it’s to their advantage to appear like precious commodities that need to be protected.
Which is why McBurney, who Amy stumbles across injured in the woods, poses such a stealthy hazard to the combination sanctuary and cage the school represents. He’s a man being introduced into the company of a group of bored, lonesome young and grown women who are starved for male attention and contact, sure. But with his hurt leg and the patrols of Confederate soldiers outside, he also seems so safe, so controllable that Martha convinces herself it’s “Christian charity” to let him heal before turning him in.
When The Beguiled, which is based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan, was first adapted into a movie in 1971 by Don Siegel, it made the way McBurney disrupted the school’s antebellum repression an overripe punchline about female desire and jealousy. In that version, he’s played by Clint Eastwood with a smirk and a luxuriant mane of hair, a virile cad who sets every lady aflutter, from Martha (who’s revealed to have had an incestuous affair with her brother) down to 12-year-old Amy (who McBurney eyebrow-raisingly declares “old enough for kisses”). When he gets his comeuppance, the movie veers from Gone With the Wind territory into Misery country — all of it scornfully hell-hath-no-fury.
Farrell’s McBurney in Coppola's version is still dashing, and still tickled to find himself a rooster in a henhouse. But he’s been scaled down, both physically and in terms of swagger. This McBurney stumbled into a war he knew little about for pay and pleads to be allowed to stay at the school once he begins recovering. It’s not his sexual charisma that makes him so alluring — in fact, the first time he’s portrayed as an object of desire, he’s unconscious, Martha finding herself overwhelmed by the simple intimacy of laying hands on a male body again when she bathes his injuries. Instead, it’s the way he separates the women from their formation, cannily understanding what each wants to be told, whether it’s the promise of escape in Edwina’s case or professions of trust in Amy’s.
And they all want so badly to be the one he chooses, to be seen and plucked out of the herd, to be special — even though he's like a 19th-century version of a bad male feminist with his willingness to say the right things lasting only until he feels his power has been eroded. McBurney doesn’t seem particularly motivated to limit his attentions to any one Farnsworth resident when he can charm (or more) them all. In goading them to spar for his affections, he comes to pose a threat not just to the rectitude on which the school’s reputation is staked, but also to the reluctant solidarity to which the women have been consigned. The Beguiled isn’t Coppola’s strongest film, but it’s her smartest and most skillful in portraying how the dynamics of a group of women can warp and weft under outside pressure, turning from community to competition.
Which is why it’s so aggravating that Coppola, who also wrote the script, chose to excise race from a story built on a foundation of slavery, as if leaning directly into criticisms of her work as an apologist for the advantages her white protagonists enjoy. These critiques are frequently unfair — characters being blinkered doesn’t mean the work itself has to be — but there’s an undeniable one to be made here in the way The Beguiled turns its gaze away from the institution enabling the lives these upper-crust women are living. And it’s an active elision — there’s a character, Hallie, who is a slave in Cullinan’s book, and who features prominently in the 1971 movie, in which she’s played by actor and blues singer Mae Mercer. Hallie remains under Martha’s control, but she has, in the shifting dynamics of wartime, eked out some small liberties for herself as deprivation has acted as a leveler between herself and the school’s cosseted students.
Siegel’s The Beguiled may be a more lurid and less finely wrought film, but it is astute in showing that no matter how vulnerable the white women feel, Hallie is forever more so. McBurney flirts with her just as fiercely as everyone else, and she flirts back, though she’s skeptically amused by his attempts to draw parallels between their situations, and by his promises to help her reunite with her escaped lover. But when McBurney seizes control of the school, it’s Hallie he threatens to rape, causing her to flash back to a past assault as she spits out that he should be prepared to kill her first. Any perceived sanctity of white womanhood the other characters try to hide behind was never extended to her.
Coppola told BuzzFeed News that her decision to take the character out, explained in the film via a single line about the slaves having left, came about because she “didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way.” The “important topic” being slavery, though her treating a character who is a slave as interchangeable with the institution indicates there’s a point she’s missing — which is that slavery already exists in the film, whether she chooses to put it onscreen directly or not. Slave labor kept the school running and underlies the wealth from which the school’s students come; it’s the ability to continue to practice slavery that’s spurred the war their fathers are off fighting.
It’s more than frustrating that The Beguiled is so adroit about the pageantry of privilege when it comes to gender and so negligent in treating race as something separable. It chooses to skirt the fact that the very class system these characters are trying to maintain their place atop rests on slavery, as do their own coddled existences, and to remove any mention of it doesn’t make this less so, it just creates a strange, noticeable vacuum. In a film that is so explicitly about white femininity, this omission doesn’t feel like the skipping of a topic too significant to be done justice to — it feels instead like willful blindness.