The original 1971 rendition of The Beguiled is a subtle, snaking psycho-sexual thriller, in which we watch Clint Eastwood — in the same year and paired with the same director as Dirty Harry — visually peruse and victimize a school full of school-aged girls and their female teachers. The movie is a sprawling invitation to the male gaze, in which one woman after another falls into the honey-trap of McBurney (Eastwood’s) obviously manufactured flirtations. It’s a movie tailor-made to fall into Sofia Coppola’s hands and have all its seams rearranged. And she does it masterfully, in a quiet dynamo of a movie as neatly stitched together as the girls’ precise embroidery.
The Beguiled follows the powder-keg tensions in a high-class Virginia girls’ school during the Civil War, where the open-hearted Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and the courageous and severe headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) shield and instruct their five pupils — played by Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, and Emma Howard — in the midst of battlefields. The delicately balanced little world is thrown entirely off-kilter, though, by the arrival of Union Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), whom the youngest student discovers wounded in the woods. The women bear his near-dead body into the house: the only reason they don’t hand him over immediately to the nearby Confederates is that McBurney will die of his wounds before he even gets to prison. They decide instead to practice Christian pity, to nurture the manipulative enemy soldier back to health, as a prisoner within the school. Match, meet fuse.
At first, the sexual tension between the girls and a seemingly polite and bemused McBurney appears half-humorous. A knowing glance between the adults silently dismisses many awkward interactions: they’re only restless girls with a crush, after all. It’s only that the women are starved of outside company. They’re shaken and relieved not to have to be afraid of the enemy in their midst. But soon, the tensions become less funny and far more dire, as McBurney must keep each of the women both sympathetic and well-inclined toward him to ensure he himself remains alive and out of Confederate prison.
In Coppola’s version, ’71 to ’17, the overt sexual language of the original is gone. The girls are not constantly barraged by warnings from passing Confederates not to “advertise” that their palatial house is a school specifically for young ladies. Confederate officers don’t come to the door with extremely thinly veiled requests to “call on” the girls. Voiceovers do not interrupt scenes to spell out that the women are generally, only, thinking in sexual terms about their new guest. The girls are not the constant object of sexual fixation by nameless male characters. And, most notably, they are not side characters in their own story.
When Eastwood played the central point-of-view character in the 1971 rendition, the audience generally stays with him scene to scene, as he adjusts his performative charm for each successive target: complimentary and humble to Edwina, cheerful and friendly to Amy, subservient and respectful to Miss Martha. It’s overwhelmingly obvious how false and dangerous he is, and how little these infatuated women see of that uncomfortable truth.
Coppola, almost literally, flips the script. Where we followed McBurney scene to scene in ’71, in ’17 we follow the women: in private moments and lessons, peering out windows, and keeping watch from the roof as the battlefield smoke creeps closer and closer to the school. Far more goes unsaid: there are pointed, double-edged compliments in place of the awkward voiceovers. There are private jealousies and aspirations. McBurney’s character is allowed to remain, to the viewer, the enigma he is to the women: a polite enemy, a respectful deserter, a friendly prisoner.
Instead of women presented as a parade of gullible partners for McBurney to dupe, we get lingering shots of McBurney’s bare skin as Miss Martha admires him. We watch McBurney out of windows alongside the women, and watch the battlefields through spyglasses from the girls’ point of view. The shift in perspective couldn’t be more explicit. We share the women’s visual perspective, as the their grand old house creaks and shifts around them, an innovative bit of sound editing that allows us to guess, along with the character, who is moving where in the school, how far away, and who it might be. We are thoroughly with the women in a way that the 1971 version never attempted, adding a whole new level of subtly and intimacy to this psychologically-charged story.
The male-gaze-inverting maneuver here doesn’t quite achieve what Laura Mulvey would call a female gaze — the women are still presented with Coppola’s customary gleaming white-and-pastel prettiness. They bedeck themselves in silks and admire themselves in mirrors, in the style of Vanitas in a Renaissance painting. The viewer is still invited to admire their physical appearance as visual commodity, as the women shine palely in the candlelight. And it is unfortunately true, too, that Coppola has streamlined the narrative so that it is only these elegant, white women the audience is asked to consider: gone is the single slave character from the source material (on which topic Coppola promptly put her foot in her mouth back in January), gone is the indication of violence and obvious dishonesty in McBurney’s character early on, gone are numerous characters from outside the school. There are a total of eleven speaking roles in The Beguiled (2017), all of them white. The movie involves solely the dynamic between the white man and the white women, like keeping your eye on a violin string as it’s wound tighter and tighter and finally snaps, without once looking away.
As narrow as it is, The Beguiled’s tiny cast creates a powerful effect in terms of narrative tension. The weight of the movie is full of conviction: the horror of it is heavy because, as opposed to finding the women’s early-on hope laughable, the audience finds that hope valid and welcome. The audience is as willing to be endeared and to be soothed as the girls and their teachers. The women aren’t dupes: they’re our lens onto the story, and the monstrousness of what happens in the school walls is all the more convincing for it.
For a director — and one of the foremost women in Hollywood — to pick up a movie as askew as Eastwood’s The Beguiled, to put its name in pink on the title screen and only feature the female protagonists on the poster: that is a one-hundred-eighty-degree turn from a moment of famous and foundational male cinema. It’s an admirable project and an admirable result, albeit with obvious and avoidable pitfalls in casting and scope. Coppola’s The Beguiled very neatly restores one silenced side of the story’s narrative, where the women are transformed from punchline to storyteller. But the movie stops short of being the radical retelling it could have been. While the movie wants to feel like an innovation, it only feels like an aesthetically appealing update — meeting the goals it aims for, which is a white female narrative of desire, war, and ambiguity.
Top photo: The Beguiled (2017)
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Alison Lanier is a Boston-based writer and editor who currently studies media and gender at MIT. Her fiction, reviews, and poetry have appeared at Ms. Magazine, Origins, Atticus Review, The Establishment, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from UMass Boston and is a member of the Writers' Room of Boston and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow her on Twitter @LanierAlison.