After reading several reviews criticizing Sofia Coppola’s new film, The Beguiled, for reasons ranging from being tone-deaf about the political aspects of the Southern Gothic setting to the lack of substance attributed to her dreamy, visual filmic style, I finally got a chance to see the movie. It’s not what I expected. Disclaimer: I have not seen the original Clint Eastwood film or read the book, so I have nothing to compare this film to but other works by Coppola, who is one of my favorite directors.
So the story is: on a plantation in the South, on the edge of a Civil War battlefield, there is a school for girls. A middle-aged woman leads this school, with one teacher in her 30s for backup to care for a handful of girls ranging from teens to tweens. According to one of the girls, the slaves left; there are no men around, except for wandering soldiers. One of the girls goes out foraging for mushrooms on the property and finds a wounded Union soldier (Corporal John McBurney) and brings him back to the schoolhouse. Due to Christian duty and Southern hospitality, the schoolmistress decides they will tend his wound and send him on his way, without reporting him to confederate troops. His smoldering good looks, Irish accent, and gallant manners earn him a soft spot in the hearts of the women. Some romance happens. Some other stuff happens. The ending is weird. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I’m so confused about the ending! The falling action happened really fast, so fast that what transpires is pretty unrealistic and unbelievable. I felt dismayed and sad at the end of the film. My first thought was, “Why was this film even made?”
Some critics have mentioned the fact that Coppola’s remake mostly removes the topic of slavery and, in fact, the war from the Civil War setting of the film. I can definitely see how people of color would feel excluded when watching this film, because it is very light on the war commentary and only has one line alluding to slavery. It’s a bunch of white people in a plantation house, and I feel like that’s relatable mostly to a certain demographic of people. I also thought it was pretty weird that Coppola unknowingly chose the same plantation house that Beyoncé uses as the setting in Lemonade as the location for the film. It seems disrespectful to a critical work by a black artist, especially in light of the current political climate and constant violence against black people. But.
Maybe I was projecting, but even though the house and fields and gardens were beautiful, it was a forlorn and haunted beauty; we as viewers and the group of women living at the house seem acutely aware that this world was built through the pain and labor of slaves. There are so many stories to tell about the Civil War and slavery, but this particular story is really intensely focused on what transpires between the women at the school and the Union soldier they rescue. At a mere 94 minutes, I think the film was too short to do real credit to many more storylines.
As for the cinematography and soundtrack, nothing really stood out. The camera followed one of the main characters around too closely sometimes and there were ominous sounds of war from just beyond the horizon of the house. The music was subdued, which was kind of a bummer, because I’ve come to expect really interesting soundtracks in Coppola films. Other reviews I read made a huge deal out of the behavior of the girls when they meet the Corporal, citing lingering shots on bits of flesh and adornments, etc, but it was mostly funny and less tantalizing. The sexy bits weren’t sexy.
Going back to my earlier question about why this film was made, I have no idea. I haven’t read any interviews with Sofia Coppola that mention her decisions around choosing to do the remake. I guess it’s about the disappointment of human behavior: how darkness can lurk under any seemingly genteel manners or prettiness. And maybe about how men treat women. And only a little bit about sexuality. And not really at all about the Civil War. I would say, go see it if you like Sofia Coppola films, but honestly, maybe just rewatch Lemonade.