Sofia Coppola’s Quiet Agony

“The child’s best and most intense occupation is with his play or games. … It would be wrong to think he does not take the world seriously; on the contrary, he takes his play very seriously and he expends large amounts of emotion on it.”

— Freud, Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming (1907)

Sofia Coppola’s Civil War era piece of Southern Goth, The Beguiled, was released quietly to the tune of 7 million at the box office, and it took the high honor of best director at Cannes. The first drips of criticism came from our own country through a political impulse. This was in the story’s failure to address the brute realities of slavery while being set in the South three years into the Civil War. Critics note that the movie settles the admittedly Biblical problem with a perfunctory line in the film’s opening minutes — thus sidestepping the problem, slavery, entirely. I can imagine the audiences who don’t read the critics will simply find it slow, and some who are watching the slow film at an even slower, careful rate (this writer’s speed) might come away with a few new thoughts about human nature, some beautiful, some horrifying.

The impulse from those of us who did not grow up in Napa Valley and were not making sand castles on the set of a movie that rhymes with Garpockalips Wow (the real version of which features a divine Laurence Fishburne) … the impulse to label Coppola a tacit racist, at worst, and at average a teller of fairy tales, (or just plain irresponsible), compelled me to think about her film a little longer, with the hope of writing something less polemical about it.

After a few hours, and later a second viewing, the film struck me as more mysterious than anything I’d seen this year (though that isn’t saying much). The Beguiled has a harsh and distilled kind of ambivalence, an attraction and repulsion, to certain ideas that are by no means small — and their names aren’t spoken in the text either — part of Coppola’s art.

It’s best to back up and think about what the criticism of historical whitewashing says. In a sense, it says that Coppola is not fit to take on the Civil War. One could go further and say she is not fit to make a period piece set during the Civil War because her approach is childish. It seems like there is an assumption behind this reflexive conclusion that could give a feminist critic fuel to type. But historical, racial, or gender lenses are not the ones Coppola needs specifically, to reimagine a kind of modern horror film that’s not a horror film. To note: In The Beguiled she uses schlocky or cheesy source (Machosploitation?) material — Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel’s male disempowerment psychodrama of the same name.

Going back to search for these deeper ideas In Coppola’s work, what David Lynch calls “bigger fish,” I could only work in surface images, and the strongest image on both viewings is that of Amy (Oona Laurence), the youngest of the southern boarding school girls. She is the one who finds northern soldier Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell) lying helpless in the wood with a nasty leg wound during her routine mushroom picking rounds. She wraps an arm around his waist and provides a body for which to lean, appearing glad to do so. At the doorstep she uses her best logic to persuade her fellow female pupils and the headmistress that they should shelter the corporal: “it would be the Christian thing to do.”

Flash to the key image: she is later in private communion with her pet turtle Henry, a childish moment if there ever was one. She’s talking to Henry and she says, “Corporal McBurney gave me one of his buttons.” As with many still lifes in Sofia’s frames, the camera settles on the button from McBurney’s handsome uniform, now in the young girl’s box of curios.

The comedy and the suspense are of a piece. Each woman in the house reacts to Corporal McBurney differently, and through these interactions tension builds in the home. Upon further reflection every reaction and move (what the oilmen call a “play”) from the women is completely natural. Starting when the freshly injured McBurney is bathed by the headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). Tight focus on Farrell’s skin and the water droplets are meditated on until the fact of a fresh body makes Ms. Martha flush with a quicksilver exhaustion. She scrubs, dips, we hear only water, and she sighs, almost raising the white flag.

This is the biological fact that a man brings into the house. The post-adolescent Alicia (Elle Fanning) brings a chipper unbridled lust to McBurney — a propos of her age — , the instructor Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) brings her dreams of escape and also her trust. Miss Farnsworth is also beguiled by the welcome guest, but is too experienced, and has too much of a lead role in the girl’s school to make a play.

Much of the film occurs in the house and revolves around the manners and rituals the school has established — probably ones reminiscent of the rituals that keep Ms. Coppola’s life orderly and above the fray. In this Farnsworth graces viewers and McBurney with a social service that the coming of a man has made, like a blessing, possible: The retiring to brandy. At no point does McBurney make Farsnworth unwelcome in this ritual (as a brandy room of suits in Chicago at the same moment in history might).

The Ritual of The Brandy

In fact he flirts, by different degrees, with all of the girls — thus opening up a world of fantasy that the closed quarters, and the brute fact of American Civil War, has closed off. Farnsworth (Kidman), thanks to McBurney’s new confidence, can now, also comically, take part in the war. Southern soldiers pass the gate and she asks an armored man if she can borrow cudgels for her unloaded pistol. “What good would the cudgels do ya mam?” She persuades him and trots inside to tell McBurney that the soldier also said he’d never seen anything so frightful as the sight of a woman with a pistol!

When Edwina indulges fantasy the first time for McBurney, her emotion is the most compelling, because through Dunst’s performance we can tell she’s been holding it in the most (call it depth of feeling). Farrell sees it, and tells her point blank, “In all my travels I’ve never seen such a beauty as delicate as yours.” McBurney asks her, comically, if she had any wish, any wish at all, what would it be? She hesitates and then quickly tells him, “to be taken far away from here.”

This exchange is juxtaposed with an outdoor glimpse of one of the younger students looking through a small telescope at the trees that barricade the property, thus magnifying the notion of leaving this Georgian mansion that has spread to all women of the house.

Settled in his room, McBurney at rest, the girls can speculate at dinner as to what the visitor is. Some speculate that he is a mercenary. The lustful Alicia says whatever he is, it’s better than “Lessons,” while it is the youngest Amelia who guesses with seriousness an expression of her deepest ideals: “He seems to be a student of nature. I hope to learn more about foreign wild life.” An idea she must’ve taken to her turtle Henry after Corporal McBurney told her he liked the birds outside.

From here, with the souls of innocence, lust, suspicion, respect, affection, and longing in the air, the movie does do what the trailer promises, and turns into a horror film — but one that’s completely staged on human and realistic terms, and hinges upon one choice from McBurney, and at times indulges in some strange and well-earned macabre images. And, to use spoilers… To say that the moments of violence are well earned is to say that the girls bring McBurney, and McBurney brings himself to a point where he insults Amelia’s turtle Henry. He hereby crushes her worldview, which has also become injected with the possibility that McBurney had brought into the house, to say nothing of fatherly affection (re: the masterful Somewhere).

It’s no small thing to witness the importance and respect Sofia Coppola places in proper and full manhood during the scenes with Amelia and McBurney. When he starts waking up to the world a little bit he ambles to the garden and offers to do work for the ladies, it is Amelia who arm-around-waist again is helping him outside. “This reminds me of the first time we met,” he says to the girl sweetly.

The mystery of why a man cannot exist, normally, in this universe is one of disturbing depth, and around this mystery Coppola has built a careful and sturdy structure (one in which expert detail is adhered to: The words Coppola chooses within the script, the dresses the costume department picks, the specificness of the brandy glasses and curtains from the production designers, The Rembrandt era/New Order album cover lighting and snapshots, the staging of a girl in a tree, with shimmering Spanish moss, the spare sound design.

Despite a formal excellence there can still be a narrative unusualness (amazingly). This is where a movie that still takes place in linear time leaves its moments of impact for the viewer to feel at his own pace. Yes there’s the moments of horror that are most obvious, yes there is the crucial business of Henry the Turtle for the subtle viewer. But there is a quieter climax still, after McBurney volunteers his services in the garden. This enables Coppola’s full woman-cult but man adoring point of view to come most alive. When McBurney offers his hand at labor he enables Ms. Farnsworth’s institution, failing in wartime, to become an idyll for each and all of the conflicted girls. The youngest girls dance by the well. Giggles pass the leaves, the youngest and smartest has a father and a big brother. Here we see through a director’s eyes the respect and awe that can be reserved for a man doing work. Breaking off tree branches, sharpening a hoe iron, gardening.

But still. As he wets his own neck as respite from the elements he is being turned into an object, a live fantasy for three different girls watching from separate stations — and they stay in these spaces. While he is almost welcome into a community, the female company, he is not quite a part of it. In this meditative moment, some balance is still not right. Coppola’s rather well-postured admiration for the man fits perfectly in its own frame but must later exist on the same timeline as a passionate and deadly image of feminine beauty, the hands that clasp in solidarity when the girls at the table know the man has been poisoned. They are in this together, the trust has been broken, and what if the unthinkable had happened to them instead? There is no “bad guy,” in The Beguiled, which also gives it the air of cinema.

The other cinematic element is the towering acting presence of Nicole Kidman, who can submerge herself in an era, with all the restraints of expression and plotting of eye that life would’ve been for a woman head of household during war. The most she can do to give in to McBurney’s charms is say “well I didn’t say that,” after he says it’s a shame he’s all healed up and must leave. His next advancement is stronger and she turns into a snapping turtle, saying, no, it’s time for you to go. She only gave herself less than an inch to indulge the fantasy. As for Farrell, he holds nothing of his passionate Irish expression back when it comes time to do some real acting.

Re: Kidman’s interesting character:

“The adult, on the contrary, is ashamed of his fantasies and hides them from people. He cherishes his fantasies as his most intimate possessions, and as a rule he would rather confess his misdeeds than tell anyone his fantasies. … There are strong enough motives for concealment; the well-brought up young woman is only allowed a minimum of erotic desire, and the young man has to learn to suppress the excess of self regard which he brings with him from the spoiled days of his childhood, so that he may find his place in a society which is full of other individuals making equally strong demands.”

— Freud, Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming (1907)

What Farrell tells the young Amelia about the singing birds outside the window is that he loves them, and anything that is wild and free. He is the closest specimen to that free thing any of the girls have seen. He is also an immigrant and comes from the North. He represents, here, the democratic promise. It seems trapped in a kind of decaying Southern luxury, or order. When McBurney’s coexistence with woman kind fails something also seems to be lost in the national sense, and in a human sense. A failure of co-existence, our weakness in the face of brutality and emotions, is what Coppola mourns in the startling final frames of The Beguiled. And if that discreet mourning weren’t sufficient, a more subtle tragedy about the impossibility of males and females is deeply mourned, and kind of baffling to consider.

When the injured McBurney is brought into the mansion the staunchest of young Southern belles, Jane (Angourie Rice), warns the women that all Blue Bellies rape every Southern woman they come across. Later when things are going smooth Farnsworth points the young women to the contrary. That the Blue Bellies do not all rape every southern woman they come across, and further, that McBurney is living proof that every person, when taken as an individual, is not what we believed them to be before.

Coppola is allowed to see and voice what is wrong from the mansion, hers or otherwise. She can and does use the Civil War to express a very current feeling, one that’s hard to shake. In this study of woman it is rendered biological, and it is a kind of disease that perhaps can only healthily be explored in our cinema. It’s a feeling of severance, of misremembered and carelessly handled promise.

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Side note on the importance of a remaining cinema

And what makes The Beguiled cinema, and not television or Content? There is something pleasing and refreshing in leaving a 90-minute movie that is dense with thoughts but does not ask for more of your time. If the ghost in the machine is the time it takes to watch all the shows everybody else is watching. Is the brisk run-time the only criterion, if the designation cinema still means anything? I found myself thinking the pretentious phrase ‘that was cinema’ all the way home, partly for the time reason, that something was over and done with in that 90 minutes, but what exactly it was I could not easily say. It wasn’t a horror movie, it wasn’t Sofia Coppola’s memoirs, it wasn’t a Colin Farrell vehicle, it wasn’t a remake, it was and wasn’t an ageless painting, it was and wasn’t a morality tale; there was a gun, but nobody used it on anyone else, and somebody important still died.

That doubt we take home is not resolved by the cinema. It’s only made more radiant and stormy, more memorable, by the beauty that it wears so naturally. By the names and labels it refuses.