This past weekend, I went to see The Beguiled, a movie based on a movie from the '70's starring Clint Eastwood and ultimately on a novel of the same name by Thomas Cullinan. It stars Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, and Kirsten Dunst, and is directed by Sofia Coppola. I want to pull this movie apart as far as history plot, and themes. Second WARNING: spoilers lie ahead. I'm not going to hold back.
It's a beauty of a film. It's set in "Virginia" in 1864; as the Civil War stretches into it's fourth bloody year, a wounded Yankee soldier is found in the woods and brought back to a young ladies' academy, which is abandoned except for two teachers and five students, all of them women. The scenery drips with mist, steamy sunlight, and Spanish moss. None of it is quite right for Virginia--because it was filmed in Louisiana--but it is undeniably pretty and very Southern.
Our first scene shows young Amy walking through the lush Virginia/Louisiana countryside in search of mushrooms, humming either Aura Lee or Lorena (I wasn't sure which it was at the time and my memory of the tune is too hazy for me to figure it out now). I want to point out that there is essentially no background music. The choice both to limit the music and to choose a few lesser-known, but period-correct and atmospheric songs, was spot-on. The movie is more intense because the only sounds we hear are the insects and the footsteps and the voices. The absence of a score also highlights those few songs that are used.
In any case, as Amy scours the woods for mushrooms, she comes across a wounded Yankee named John McBurney (Colin Farrell). She helps him to the school, where the no-nonsense Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) tends to his leg wound. Pretty soon, he's feeling well enough to sit up and talk. Farrell is charming and attractive as he gets to know the ladies of the seminary. Farrell's natural Irish brogue lends an extra air of romance, which apparently all the women fall prey to. Amy thinks she has found a kindred soul in Farrell's McBurney. Miss Martha find him a reassuring presence when her establishment is in need of some manual labor. Miss Edwina (Dunst), who seems to feel out of place at the seminary, believes she has found someone who can sympathize with her outsider status. Alicia, who is a student but older than the other girls, is a bit of a rogue and sees McBurney as an opportunity to rebel, have some fun, and prove herself a real grown-up. It's really not clear what the others girls think of him. We see much less of them, though they, too, start to simper when he's around. They seem alternately to want his attention and to be afraid of getting it--and sometimes to be afraid of him as a physical force.
There is a lot of tittering and pointed remarks, and the girls all break out their finery to impress McBurney, who generally reacts with barely-suppressed amusement. It all seems harmless (too harmless, perhaps; he doesn't seem threatening, though the story doesn't work well if he's no threat), at least until he whispers in Edwina's ear that he will come to her room that night. When he doesn't come, Edwina goes in search of him and finds him in bed--with Alicia. Edwina and McBurney get in a little tiff, and she ends up pushing him down the stairs (not in anger, exactly). It's not clear-cut really who was "wrong" here. Did McBurney owe Edwina a visit to her bed (maybe)? Should he have gone to Alicia (probably not, given her age)? Should Edwina have pushed him down the stairs (probably not)? But in any case, the fall badly reopens the leg wound that initially brought him to the seminary and that had been healing well. It's such a bad break that Miss Martha decides she has no choice but to amputate the leg.
When he wakes, McBurney is, understandably, upset at having lost a leg. He blames Miss Martha. Did she really punish him for going to Alicia's bed, as he claims? Or was it necessary to amputate his leg in order to save his life, as she claims? Is he justified in his yelling and screaming? Or is he really a danger to the women? As far as the first two, I don't know; maybe a lot of things went through Miss Martha's head when she made that decision. As for the third, I think he was justified, yes. He had just lost his leg, which meant his life was forever changed. He would be a cripple for life. That isn't easy to take. And while he did rampage, he didn't seem to be be making specific, immediate threats, and he could have.
The ladies manage to subdue McBurney and lock him in a room. Are they justified in this? Maybe, since he was on a rampage (though it's not clear they were in danger). But was it wise? Probably not. It only made him more angry. Eventually, he escapes the room and institutes a sort of reign of terror. But Edwina steps in and sleeps with him. The timing is peculiar and Edwina's motive is unclear. Was she trying to simply calm him down? Was she just super attracted to his anger and rage, to the fact that he was a damaged, broken man? In any case, it did (apparently--why?) work to calm him. But in the meantime, Miss Martha has been trying to think of how "to deal with" him. One of the girls--Marie, who's otherwise been fairly quiet--suggests that they poison him with mushrooms. Amy goes to pick some, and at dinner they feed him the mushrooms. He is calm, polite, and apologetic, but no one stops him from eating the mushrooms. The only one who isn't in on the plot is Edwina. She's shocked when he falls to the floor, dead. None of the women except Edwina even blinks.
In the final scene, they sew McBurney's body into a shroud and carry it outside the seminary's gate, tying a blue rag there to signal Confederate troops.
Although it flows logically, it didn't all quite click, maybe because nothing feels quite big enough. We have to justify murder, after all. Although we see some primping and giggling, we more or less have to take it on faith that all these women are dangerously fascinated with McBurney. It all seems quite innocent and harmless, and the story would have come together much better if it had all felt more sinister. That goes for McBurney's role, as well. He seems like a man pleased but somewhat bemused by all the female attention. He doesn't seem threatening, in spite of the fact that his maleness in the presence of so many young women is (apparently) meant to be inherently threatening. Frankly, if he had tipped his hat politely and left the house, it would have fit perfectly well with the interactions that are depicted through the first half of the movie. And when he does end up in Alicia's bed, it doesn't feel (to me) like a grand betrayal of the other women. Perhaps that's why the ending didn't feel justified: the actual threat he posed seemed minimal (especially since he's hobbling around on one leg!).
Still, the final scene outside the gates fit on a plot level. But it didn't make practical sense. The blue rag on the gate has been mentioned previously as a signal to passing Confederates that there is a Yankee prisoner within to be picked up (in this case, it's McBurney's body). But it's been established that soldiers pass through at most every few days. So the body will be lying there for a long time, and will both rot and be torn into by wild animals in the meantime. And when Confederate soldiers do see their signal, they will. . . what? They won't take the body with them. They'll bury it, obviously, which the ladies would be better-served to just do themselves instead of letting it rot until someone else can do it. Why would they wait for the soldiers to do it, aside from a desire to avoid the physical labor? The only sensible course of action would be for them to bury the body themselves.
What does it all mean, all this murder and girl-on-girl jealousy? Who is in charge? Who is the victim? How did historical views of gender roles shape the characters? How did the (more) modern views of gender shape the characters (who were created by a 20th century writer)? As I see it, it's an intriguing look at both how women can work against each other and together--because the women here do both. For a large part of the movie, they are all at cross-purposes, because they are all hoping to get McBurney's particular attention. Now, I've heard that this is anti-feminist. Why should women lose their minds just because there's a man there? It's a legitimate question. But the answer is there in the premise. McBurney is charming and wounded and "other", and he's the first man who they've had much interaction with in a very long time.
Also--and this to me is an important point--women are not always strong and moral and upright. The world's problems would actually not be solved if women ran everything, because women are, actually, human. We don't all have the same wants and needs, and sometimes we feel the need to work against one another. Is this the fault of patriarchy? Maybe. Or maybe it's just because we're flawed human beings. Sometimes we make mistakes. So, no, I don't think that the women all vying for a man's attention is anti-feminist per se, and all the more so because at the end the women do end up working together to--oopsies--murder McBurney. In the end, there's a message of solidarity there. Even Edwina, who didn't participate in the murder and seems uneasy about it, doesn't overtly protest. Yes, there are some themes of female obsession with men and female jealousy, but there are also themes of female solidarity and triumph, of women trying to rescue a desperate situation, and of women who don't give in to a male presence.
Now, there is another, more troubling, matter that has been remarked upon extensively: the erasure of a mixed-race character and an enslaved black character. This Slate article http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2017/06/sofia_coppola_s_whitewashed_new_movie_the_beguiled.html makes astute points about the erasure of not one but two black/mixed-race women. The reason for the omission is fairly obvious: Coppola didn't want to delve into the deep, murky, and fraught waters of race relations. Also, I can understand from a story perspective that, as a director, she wanted to have a laser-like focus on McBurney and the women, and that race would create a whole new set of subplots and subtexts. The problem, as the Slate article points out, is that when you set a story in the South during the Civil War, and you have a Union soldier crossing paths with Southern women, those murky waters really can't be avoided. Or, rather, they can be, but the avoidance is painfully obvious. Saying once, offhandedly, that the slaves have left is really not nearly enough. And quite frankly, a bit more subplot and subtext would have done this movie some good. Basically, this is 2017, and in this day and age you simply can't get away with glossing over these issues. Plus, as the Slate article points out, the character Mattie, who is enslaved, isn't infatuated with McBurney like the others, which would have been a very nice counterpoint.
Lastly, I wanted to say a word about the costumes. The costumes were, on the whole, lovely and floaty and, well, white. The symbolism for purity and virginity is not subtle. I did find the lack of crinolines (hoop skirts) questionable, though I'm content to say that it was late in the war and the ladies were isolated, so being super-fashionable didn't matter, and that these women were doing things like hoeing the vegetable patch. There's no counter-argument to the fact that gardening in a crinoline ain't easy, but as for the first part, well, they all get gussied up when McBurney comes down for dinner, so surely they would break out the crinolines for the occasion. Besides, they each seem to have at least a handful of fine dresses left, so surely their crinolines haven't fallen to dust just because it's 1864. In any case, Frock Flicks gives a rundown of the costumes here.
Having just picked apart plot, character, and thematic issues, I probably sound as though I didn't like the movie. But I did--I enjoyed it for many reasons. The setting and atmosphere are almost worth the price of admission. I appreciated that the accents weren't over-the-top. Though the subdued tone made it a little hard to buy into the whole murder thing, it did strike me as a nice contrast to the bombast and melodrama of some movies. I enjoyed Miss Martha's cool, pious efficiency and that she didn't waver from that. The performances were uniformly strong, especially Farrell's. It also made for some tense, fun story-telling. Though I can nitpick and say that the tone didn't quite justify the ending, the story flowed along neatly and quickly. Though the movie is beautifully atmospheric, it doesn't ever slow down. These are no small things, and they make for a good movie--though not a great one.