After failed development of a darker, underwater-shot version of The Little Mermaid at Disney, Coppola’s next project looked uncertain. Coppola may be overshadowed by her father, Francis Ford Coppola, but the Coppola family has branches throughout Hollywood, from actor Nicolas Cage to Gia Coppola, director of Palo Alto (2013); the Coppolas are important not only for directing films but for American Zoetrope’s film distribution. Coppola approached The Beguiled after reading Thomas Cullinan’s long forgotten novel A Painted Devil (1966) that provided the basis for The Beguiled (1971), making notes on holiday. Cullinan’s novel framed each chapter from a different woman’s perspective; Coppola sought to approach the material freshly.
Set three years into the American Civil War in 1864, The Beguiled is a story of the South, shot in the Madewood Plantation House in Louisiana and set in the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies in Virginia. The enclosed world Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) builds seems unimportant amid wider conflict, teaching girls French lessons and table etiquette. Alicia (Elle Fanning) takes up embroidery and farms agrarian land, sowing soil and growing carrots in a long, tedious process, meals directly from the land. Coppola sought to present “women left behind” during wartime, rather than men at war: the house abandoned, slaves fled, husbands and fathers lost in war without a single reference; as art director Jennifer Dehghan describes, young girls Marie (Addison Riecke), Emily (Emma Howard), Jane (Angourie Rice) and Amelia (Oona Laurence) were “babies when the war started”, growing up within a “claustrophobic and trapped” environment.
Drawing a moodboard of references, Coppola drew upon Civil War photography and portraiture, watching Ken Burns’ The Civil War (1990). Coppola has a distinct aesthetic, drawing not only from film but fashion photography, influences from the naturalism and femininity of Juergen Teller and Corinne Day and the colour photography of William Eggleston. The Beguiled is most striking in the work of costume designer Stacey Battat and production designer Anne Ross. Dehghan researched into sewing equipment, musical instruments, table dressings, ironwork and vegetables, installing moss, vines, vegetable and rose gardens, raiding antique shops around New Orleans and focusing budget onto the interior and exterior of the house. Visiting the Met costume archive, Coppola worked from fabric swatches, creating a faded palette of pastels of dresses “washed many times”. Kirsten Dunst mentions the crew socialising together, holding Bible study, cooking breakfast together and learning dances. But as Corey Atad writes, the film’s “aesthetics are not apolitical”, highlighting that the film was shot in the same location as the empowering and illuminating Lemonade (2016). Black writer Angelica Jade Bastién argues the “untended garden” acts as an “unavoidable visual marker for the labor of black people”.
Conflict exists upon the periphery: Confederate soldiers march by the gates transporting prisoners of the war; explosions provide the only noise and light, touching the house from a distance, creating what Coppola describes as a “stark experience”. The Beguiled remains largely silent, the score by Phoenix only intermittently used. A Quiet Passion presents a similar sense of the periphery of war and gender: Emily Dickinson voices opinions on slavery and conflict, but remains confined to her house, told to keep silence and her place; Davies shifts through the archive of war, compiling a montage of photographs and music. The General (1926), one of the earlier films about the war, positions Johnnie as a train driver trying to hold onto his way of life as the war passes behind him. Atad himself argues Coppola’s exoticised South bears comparison to the “false nobility” perpetuated by The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939), the latter a film Coppola confesses she drew her first impression of the South from.
In the opening, Coppola plays the film as a dark fairytale along the lines of how Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) foregrounded mythology with the historical and political context of the Spanish Civil War. Young Amelia walks through the twisted branches of the woods, picking mushrooms for supper as she discovers the body of Union soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell); with his Irish lilt, McBurney recalls the United States’ founding as a nation of immigrants. Each girl responds to his presence differently: Jane treats him with distrust as an enemy and mercenary, feeling loyalty to the Confederacy; Martha threatens to return him as prisoner of war; others feel he should be treated with respect and dignity. McBurney becomes an empty vessel, speculated over but never knowing his identity, limping around on crutches and spending most of his time in bed in the music room. As Martha washes open wounds with alcohol, the awkward stitches feel like a David Cronenberg film. As Christian Lorentzen comments, “[g]ore is a new element in the work of Sofia Coppola”, through the “mangled flesh and bone” and the blood on Martha’s nightgown during the amputation.
The Beguiled is defined by its women; John is relegated to the housework. Coppola went into filmmaking as an act of visibility, taking over The Virgin Suicides (1999) from a male director out of persistence and making films for teenage girls that “treat that audience with respect”. Coppola drew influences from female-centric films, including the films of Jane Campion, The Innocents (1961), Tess (1979) and stills from Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), reflecting the rituals of femininity.
Martha is the most manipulative figure, holding unspoken influence and control at the head of the dinner table. Kidman delivers a powerhouse of a performance, remaining as affecting as her sheer sexuality in To Die For (1995), Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Moulin Rouge! (2001), spirituality and existentialism in The Others (2001) and The Hours (2002), emotion as a raped woman in Dogville (2003), and her more maternal role in Rabbit Hole (2010). Previously working with Coppola on Somewhere (2010), Fanning is quickly becoming one of the greatest young actresses of recent years, embodying teenage sexuality and desire in Alicia that she has done so well in the idealised, imagined body of Jesse in The Neon Demon and Julie’s indifference to sex in 20th Century Women. Fanning grew up with Coppola’s films; she still regards The Virgin Suicides as one of her favourite films. Dunst, working with Coppola since she was a teenager, is able to achieve character and identity far deeper than Mary Jane in the Spider-Man trilogy (2002-07) and Vivian in Hidden Figures, developed with personality. But as Richard Brody writes, Coppola’s Civil War and women are “an abstraction”, reducing complex historical and political events without the flashbacks, interior monologues and images of war that lace both the book and original film, interested instead in each character’s “immediate experience”.
The young girls of the Farnsworth Seminary carry youthful innocence, dressed in white, virginal dresses. The Beguiled’s conceit of multiple women interested in the same man might seem the premise of a raunchy sex comedy or exploitation film, but McBurney’s presence creates a deep exploration into female desire. Colour changes: girls put on blue and pink dresses, but remains subdued. Amelia remains oblivious to adult desire, keeping a button from his uniform as a memento and staying friendly with her pet tortoise. Martha heads a meeting on what impact McBurney is having; the impact is clear.
Examining wounds, Martha is tempted to touch his thigh, but holds herself back, without the “incest and a fervid erotic imagination” or “dark past or kinky yearnings” from Siegel’s film. In the middle of the night, Alicia sneaks out, kissing him as he lies asleep; later, the pair have sex. As Edwina confronts them, he’s pushed out of bed, falling down the stairs. The loss of McBurney’s leg becomes a phallic metaphor: Martha decides the best course of action is to amputation to stop the bleeding, without knowing anatomy. McBurney rails against the women in masculine aggression, knocking a chandelier to the ground and throwing Amelia’s tortoise. Martha is a butcher and castrator: he would rather be dead than less than a man. His sexuality embodies newfound ferocity: having sex with Edwina, he rips her pearls off, rolling along the floor. As Brody describes, rather than the frenzied “slathering lust” of Siegel’s film, Coppola approaches female desire with “a lyricism, a gracefulness, an elegance that doesn’t in any way diminish its carnality.” But The Beguiled entirely rejects black female sexuality: slave Hallie in Siegel’s film, controversially not present in Coppola’s adaptation, is for Atad a woman who “stands up for herself with a ferocity drawn from any number of black women in the blaxploitation genre.”
The women must reconcile Catholic faith with sexuality, entwined within 19th century culture, carrying expectations of marriage and love; sexual desire becomes a sinful hindrance to repress. The Beguiled becomes a cautionary tale. Although McBurney isn’t the crucified Jesus analogue of Siegel’s film, McBurney becomes what J. Hoberman describes as a “snake in the garden”, the seminary “one step from Eden”: paradise in the middle of chaos. The seminary’s welcoming of McBurney reflects their faith: a young girl feels looking after him would be the proper Christian thing to do, whilst Edwina prays for his health. Given a Bible, McBurney sets it aside, never looking through. The seminary maintains religious rituals, saying grace at the table, but rarely practices what they preach. Martha stages a last supper, but it depends upon murder, a twisted dark fairytale intertwined with theological iconography: she feeds him poisonous mushrooms he willingly consumes, effectively causing his own demise, speaking in double entendre. McBurney is left a white shroud, symbolised only by a blue ribbon hanging upon the gate.
Working with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, Coppola conforms to a highly classical style running through the film’s narrative, cinematography and characters, using vintage lenses. With Marie Antoinette (2006), Coppola chose the opposite approach, opting for an anarchic, ahistorical punk aesthetic. Little in the film, scarcely its sexual politics, feels 2017, but a product of an earlier era of filmmaking. In the opening shots, even the pink lettered title feels as though it were imprinted on physical film at the same time as Siegel’s film. Le Sourd excels in shot composition, conveying the enclosed nature of the seminary: white, blown out windows and drawn curtains; a little girl watching events from a tree; girls crowded together inside, watching from the curtains. As Martha meets a Confederate soldier at the gate, Le Sourd creates a duality within the frame, creating a distance between them. At the dinner table at night, the lighting is perfect, darkness only illuminated by candles. The Beguiled’s classicist approach bears comparison to The Lost City of Z and its emulation of the form of earlier, biographical epics: approaching history as history, foregoing an explicit clouding from present aesthetic sensibilities or cultural values.
Coppola’s The Beguiled presents an interesting counterpoint to earlier adaptations, helped by strong performances and characterisation from some of the greatest actresses currently working. Coppola approaches the material with a confident visual style and identity, harkening back to another era.