This is a guest post written by Raquel, author of the blog Out of the Past.
If you’ve seen the Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation of The Beguiled, it’s easy to compare and contrast it with Sofia Coppola’s version. Both intend to tell the same story, the one told in Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel of the same name, but they deviate in one thing: perspective.
Director Sofia Coppola was looking for a new project when a friend of hers suggested that she remakes Seigel’s The Beguiled. She studied the original source material including Cullinan’s novel and knew she needed to tell the story in her own way. Working on the script, Coppola stripped the story down to its essentials. She envisioned a more focused story honing in on the experiences of women living at an all-girls school in the America’s Civil War era South. Cullinan’s novel was written with multiple perspectives and Siegel’s adaptation follows the male lead, John McBurney played by Clint Eastwood. Coppola’s vision shifted to the female point of view.
What was life like for these isolated women? The slaves are gone, the men are at battle and they’re all alone making the best of a social dynamic they were not prepared for. The female characters in the story are in different stages of their womanhood. First you have Amy (Oona Laurence). She’s the independent young pre-teen who sets out to the woods to gather mushrooms for dinner. Amy is the first to encounter Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell), an enemy soldier with a severely wounded leg. Out of pity she brings him back to her school. She develops an innocent friendship with McBurney. Then you have Jane (Angourie Rice) and Marie (Addison Riecke) who are slightly older than Amy. The idea of a man in their midst excites them but only to the point of curiosity and dress up. They can only mimic what the older girls are doing but they’re not quite at the point of understanding why. Then you have Alicia (Elle Fanning) who is transitioning into womanhood. She’s conflicted by the presence of this new man. She’s both attracted and repulsed by him. Alicia takes many opportunities to showcase to McBurney her newly developed body but isn’t adverse to the idea of turning him into the Confederate army. As we climb up the ladder of age there are new complexities.
Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) is almost at the age in which society would label her a spinster. She’s a teacher at the school and tends to the younger ones much like a stern but caring governess would. Her lust for McBurney is the strongest. She sees in him an escape from her humdrum life. The possibility to leave the school and live a life of fulfillment and passion. Then there is Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) the headmistress. She’s the stern leader, strict in her mindset and her methods. Her Christian sensibilities prevent her from turning in the soldier until he’s well. This stranger stirs things up and brings excitement into the humdrum of life at the school. When danger arises it rests on her to protect the women and make things right again.
What all of the women have in common is their isolation and desire. Here is a union soldier in their midst. He’s the enemy and he’s exciting. He’s also vulnerable and needs to be cared for. With so many stories in our collective cannon focusing on the male gaze, Sofia Coppola adeptly gives the gaze to the women. It’s the objectification of a man’s body. His body is the one that’s being desired. He’s stripped down and washed and the camera lingers over his features. He catches the women, especially Edwina, staring at him with desire and curiosity. In the end, it’s his body they take possession of and control. One could say Coppola’s film is a feminist manifesto of storytelling.
There are two key characters missing in Coppola’s The Beguiled that were in the original movie. First there is Martha’s brother who is missing in battle. We only see him in flashbacks and the incestuous affair with his sister as well as his attempted rape of their slave adds an incredibly dark undertone to the film. Then there is the slave Hallie, played by Mae Mercer, who is another strong female character in the role but lacks the agency the other women do in the narrative. Coppola wisely decided to remove the incest storyline from the plot. However I thought that the role of Hallie could have been portrayed well and would have added an interesting dynamic to the plot.
Coppola has been much praised for her work on The Beguiled. She won the prestigious Cannes Film Festival award for Best Director in 2017. She’s only the second woman to do so in the festivals 71 year history and the first since Yuliya Solntseva won back in 1961. When the Academy Awards roll around early next year I hope her achievement in storytelling won’t be overlooked.