Review: The Beguiled

Image credit: Movieclips Trailers via YouTube

The best description of Sophia Coppola can be found in John Oliver’s description of Japan: ‘A nation so vibrant that even Sophia Coppola couldn’t make it boring’. Sadly, The Beguiled, both the book and the Clint Eastwood original, didn’t escape as easily. The trailer promised a haunting history major’s dream porn, suddenly turning into a men’s rights activist’s version of Saw. The film possibly hit the ‘haunting’ part of that description, but little else. 

The original had incest, lesbian themes and social relevance (after all, this is Civil War we are talking about). All the things which a female director could have explored in a very different way from a 1970s macho B movie. The story is absolutely isolated and divorced from any context - away goes the extra female character, a black slave with her own version of what’s actually happening or any hint at the actual Civil War, as opposed to any other military context. The film could have been set anywhere and in any period, it is that sterile - a homosocial group of women finds an enemy soldier, he disrupts their sleepy asexual existence, all the ones above the bare minimum age of consent suddenly want to jump on him from day one, an accident follows and the man becomes a physical threat. So many themes which could have been properly explored - the effect of a homosocial environment on emotional systems and repressed (or explored) female sexuality, the background of at least the major characters, the can of worms that is the Civil War. A number of reviewers pointed out that Coppola’s movie feels like a ‘fairy tale’ - I’d say a fairy tale written by a misogynistic online commentator. We have an idyllic group of seven women, who apparently had zero interaction or character traits before the man appeared. Despite having seven major female and only one male character, the movie hardly passed the Bechdel test - all they talk about is the ‘wounded soldier’. It sounds either like something more radical feminists would say (it all starts with small threats, we need to stop men before they can get to the bigger ones), or, more to the point, the way radical feminism is seen and satirised by male internet trolls (he was in shock, he didn’t actually pose any threat and was ready to leave, but those hateful bitches). 

Unless Coppola was trying to film a satire, and there is very little evidence for that in the movie, it is ultimately hollow, pointless and quite problematic. Individual scenes are directed and acted out perfectly (Nicole Kidman is especially delightful and nuanced in her portrayal of the matriarch of the school). The cinematography is lavish and it does create a rich haunting atmosphere. Unfortunately, without a story, characters and some sort of a central message or point to it all, these disparate elements cannot be successfully pulled together into something worth watching. The film is strangely captivating - I enjoyed watching it in a way one could enjoy looking at a well-painted landscape. Once you actually start thinking about what’s going on, it is simply disappointing.


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