Talking about The Beguiled means talking about Sofia Coppola’s accidental racism. Google the film’s title and you’ll be dragged under an endless swirl of thinkpieces hinged upon the matter of Coppola’s decision to scrub her adaptation of Don Siegel’s 1971 Southern Gothic movie, itself an adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 Southern Gothic novel, of its lone black character, with each piece yanking discussion of The Beguiled further and further away from The Beguiled itself. Amidst the fracas, actual chatter about the film hasn’t been lost as much as omitted, and that’s disappointing for two major reasons: One, the film happens to be superb, and two, the chatter is exactly what it sounds like (sans one or two exceptions).
Citing what Coppola bypasses in her take on The Beguiled has the natural consequence of eliding what she includes, and if the absence of Hattie, Mae Mercer’s house slave in the Siegel original, is impossible to ignore, it’s equally impossible to ignore the subtext Coppola articulates through her absence. Here, she treats the all-girls boarding school where the story’s action takes place as a bubble of privilege: Her characters sit on the periphery of the Civil War, worrying out loud over the suffering war inflicts on its participants without considering the suffering that led to its outbreak, because of course a bunch of Southern whites would never question the morality of systemic racism as they sit comfortably in the loge, watching smoke billow in the distance, the cost of a culture and economic order built on wholesale indifference to human dignity.
Maybe it’s fair game to accuse Coppola of artistic cowardice by excising Hattie, but if response to The Beguiled ahead of its theatrical premiere suggests anything, it’s that she has a valid built-in excuse for her lack of courage. The Internet is an unforgiving place. Had she written her own version of Hattie, and if her version didn’t pass muster, would critics have cut her slack just for trying? (The correct answer here is “of course not.”) And does this negate her responsibilities as an artist, whatever you feel those responsibilities might be? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Either way, her take on The Beguiled smugly manages to allow Coppola continued focus on the most prominent motif in her work, white femininity, while critiquing the film’s period setting through that motif, and that has to count for something.
The Beguiled’s deteriorating manse is its stage, a place whose erstwhile splendor is only evinced by the high minded behaviors of its inhabitants. Leaves litter the surrounding grounds. A near-constant fog creeps around the building’s walls, literal atmosphere lending the movie an inescapable figurative atmosphere. The gardens are in desperate need of tending. The interior is layered in disrepair that should be cause for chagrin, but Coppola’s cast of characters cling to the class mores ingrained in them like a drowning man clutching at a lifebuoy: Their world is falling down around them, but they refuse to drop French lessons, or culinary indulgences or attitudes about manual labor they clearly believe are beneath them. The Beguiled’s portraiture of the Southern belle archetype isn’t an endorsement. It’s a mounting indictment verging on satire.
Coppola’s primary “in” to The Beguiled is elegance, which should come as a surprise to no one familiar with the rest of her filmography (notably Marie Antoinette and The Bling Ring). Tastefulness is her jam; not a moment in the movie passes by sans flourishes of grace and decorum, buttressing corroborative details that reinforce its sense of time and place, as well as the bourgeois luxuries that are hallmarks of both. Siegel kicked off his interpretation of Cullinan’s text with echoing doom, cannon fire from fields of battle, a cacophony of soldiers in agony leading into a brawny Clint Eastwood flick that caricatures women through the male gaze. Coppola takes an opposing view, installing viewers in a microcosm curated by women where male aggression occurs at the fringes of existence, before it’s invited into their home.
Here, toxic masculinity is represented by Colin Farrell, maintaining his Irish brogue with a healthy dash of entitled narcissism. He’s a disruptive source in the lives of Coppola’s protagonist ensemble, led by Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst, filled in with Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Emma Howard, and Addison Riecke as their charges. Farrell’s Union deserter is met by Laurence’s precocious, compassionate youth in the woods as she forages for mushrooms. Their fast friendship lends him immediate credibility that he goes about frittering away after he recovers from a leg injury sustained in combat: He toys with Kidman, Dunst, and Fanning’s joint emotions and affections, revealing an early, seemingly playful quip about how easily entertained he is as a misconstrued warning. He wins over all the girls at the school before long, culminating in a sidesplitting dinner table argument over apple pie. (One of them baked it, but one of them is the author of the recipe, and another one collected the apples. The earnest frivolity of the contest is endearing, but the scene becomes tragic in retrospect, once Farrell violates his guest privilege.)
The fallout of Farrell’s transgressions is horrific, but despite being marketed and textured as a horror film (Philippe Le Sourde’s gloom-soaked cinematography invokes the visual scheme of a haunted house picture), The Beguiled is a gentle production: Angry, perhaps, prickly at times, but never especially cruel, save for Farrell’s outbursts and imprecations. Coppola sticks to a strict gore quotient, allowing only a few lingering shots of rent flesh; amputation is observed in past tense only. (Gone, too, is the incest angle of Siegel’s film, ostensibly because Coppola knows she isn’t Park Chan-wook, though his 2016 effort, The Handmaiden, would make a good double feature alongside The Beguiled, regardless.) Instead, she emphasizes feelings and sensation as her actresses carve into their characters’ innermost conflicts: Desire versus probity, loyalty versus gratification, discipline versus self-liberation.
They each do great work, Kidman and Dunst above all. They present themselves as upright and authoritative, guiding figures for their students to rely on, but to an extent they’re just posturing. They long for bygone times, in particular Dunst, who wants nothing more than to get the hell out of Dodge, and of course she does. She’s a beneficiary of plantation life, as The Beguiled’s white characters all are. Coppola’s love of opulence notwithstanding, it’s easy to unpack her fixation with the myth of refined Southern hospitality as muted censure. War is uncivil, the teachers and their students both opine, but God forbid they spare a second to ponder how human enslavement fits into a sophisticated civilization.
Maybe Coppola should have spared time herself for confronting the race politics of The Beguiled’s era directly. Maybe if she had, the film wouldn’t be as deftly streamlined as it is. The discussion of what the film isn’t is a discussion worth having, just not at the expense of what the film is: Delicious, sensual, made with sterling craft and an unassumingly sharp edge.
Director: Sofia Coppola
Writer: Sofia Coppola (screenplay), Thomas P. Cullinan (novel)
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Colin Farrell, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Emma Howard, Addison Riecke
Release Date: June 23, 2017 (NY/LA); June 30 (wide)
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for The Playlist, Slant Magazine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.