Why Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled Is A Feminist Mindfuck
The trailer for The Beguiled is unnervingly alluring: a wounded soldier is nursed back to health by a horde of sexually frustrated Southern Belles, who eventually become so ravenous for his attention that they end up doing something horrible to him – and yes, that means chopping stuff off. It looks sexy, it looks scary, but it certainly doesn’t look all that feminist.
But Sofia Coppola wasn’t stretching the truth when she called it a ‘feminist retelling’, or confusing her film passing the Bechdel Test with feminist clout. The 2017 version is definitely an improvement on Siegel’s of 1971, but for fear that you are put off by the OTT trailer, let’s clear up some of its insinuations and hackneyed tropes:
1. The women don’t all become murderous witches, they get scared of the nice guy-gone-predatory.
2. They’re not crazy nymphomaniacs, just women who haven’t seen any men in a reaaallly long time.
3. Colin Farrell’s Corporel McBurney isn’t a blameless flirt, he’s a manipulative b******.
At least that’s what I decided.
Coppola shows McBurney to use most of the tricks in the book to seduce every one of the women in the seminary, from creepily telling the youngest in secret that she’s his ‘best friend’, to carefully kneading personal details out of Nicole Kidman’s cool matriarch character. The girls’ vying for McBurney’s attention reaches ridiculous heights in musical tableaus played out after dinner and conversational one-upmanship – not so much girl power scenes as timeless female peacocking. It’s uncomfortable viewing, especially when you’re expecting sisterhood; women flitting from kinship to bitchiness at the drop of a bonnet, just because one sexy man is thrown in the mix.
And yet, the real controversy surrounding The Beguiled isn’t to do with its frankly misleading trailer, but its obvious whitewashing. The original novel and 1971 film feature Hallie, a black slave who tends to McBurney’s wounds, whilst in the 2017 version the slaves have “fled”, a neat tucking away of uncomfortable truths about Southern prosperity. Coppola’s answers when probed about this hole are unsatisfactory at best: “I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way”. Some have praised this move as a white director “staying in her lane” and acknowledging her inability to give a voice to black issues correctly. Others feel that a film starved of any intersectional context – and especially a film set in the Confederate South – as shocking and downright disrespectful. Although a largely female cast and crew make for a bewitching examination of female foibles, Coppola’s decision to separate race and gender is almost unbelievably backwards. The most uncomfortable it gets is a recent Instagram post by Elle Fanning: Beyonce’s Lemonade and The Beguiled were shot on the same plantation. The irony isn’t lost on most.
On face value, it’s a beautiful film, with crazy beautiful costumes and incredible acting. The sparse script leaves so much down to what’s unsaid between the characters, poignantly reflecting the expected modesty of women at the time. But aside from the fact it’s always wonderful to a film that explores the intricacies of female relationships, The Beguiled seems almost farcical without intersectionality. Go and see this film, and don’t feel guilty for enjoying the female-centric narrative - but be mindful of the blinkers that you’ve put on.
Article by Maeve Mahony