To call Sofia Copploa’s latest work – revolutionary, might strike some as an overzealous sell or even, slightly misguided. However, when you realise that The Beguiled bucks the status quo established over the past century, you might be tempted to come around to my thinking. The male gazed, so embedded into our subconscious by the patriarchy of production studios, you’d be forgiven for being duped into believing that it was the de facto perspective of cinema – women the observed, while men observe. Yet, with The Beguiled, Coppola refreshingly offers viewers an unprecedented narrative perspective – the female gaze, which offers her phenomenal film deeper layers of intrigue and complexity. With a greater drive for equality in the industry, in another centuries time, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see future critics looking back and considering The Beguiled as the spark that ignited the blaze.
Despite the raging of a bitter, bloody Civil War only mere miles away, hauntingly, living in a blissful bubble of calm and routine, Martha (Nicole Kidman) and her little commune of discarded girls, seem to carry on with life unfettered by the brutality at their doorstep. Even as black plumes of smoke uncoil against the horizon and staccato gun fire fills the air, behind the safety of closed iron gates, the women are more than happy to frolic and sing joyfully under the embrace of the midday sun. Well, until the arrival of a wounded ‘blue belly’ soldier at their doorstep. Father figure, mysterious stranger, escapism and wounded bird to nurse back to life – with barely a word passing from his lips and the past still shrouded in shadow, Corporate John Patrick McBurney (Colin Ferrell) quickly becomes the blank canvas to which female fantasies and erotises are projected upon. Once life in the big, white mansion could have been considered – utopian, as women liberated from the oppression of the men in their, are freed to be happy and united. However, the arrival of one man causes jealousy and lust to sprout, like weeds in their Garden of Eden.
First, I feel it’s important to acknowledge that while Coppola’s film shares the same source material as Don Spiegel’s 1971 original, The Beguiled is by no means a remake, rather an entirely new entity in its own right – a reimagining if you like. And while the original has been tarnished by misogyny and Clint Eastwood kissing a 12-year-old girl, The Beguiled distances itself by subverting the gaze and focusing more attention on female dynamics rather than sexual desire; changes I felt benefited the film greatly and elevated the viewing experience.
Examining the female gaze in greater depth; it was fascinating to see how age became the prism to which each woman saw John. Amy, the youngest and the founder of John, quickly sought him out as a friend. Teenager Alesha (Elle Fanning), was instantly sexually drawn to him and twenty-something Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) almost fell in love with him. While, most telling of all, middle-aged Martha choose to mother him. Deeper reading might suggest, the sudden appearance of man causes the women to fall back into the feminine roles expected of them. However, Coppola doesn’t allow such stereotypes to imprison the women throughout, it soon becomes very clear that their union is by far more important than the life of any man.
It’s also interesting to note how men become marginalised in the film, as you only get to see them through snatched glimpses beyond iron railings and via the momentary flickers of candlelight. While in the younger women’s eyes they become almost disposable; chastising war deserters as ‘cowards’ and being nonchalant at the prospect of taking a man’s life. Perhaps, this is down to the fact the younger girls have only known the word during the war, and have been conditioned to consider men dying while women crochet to be a normal part of life.
Much like her debut feature, The Virgin Suicides (1999), which also examines female identity, Sofia Coppola imbues every shot with a woozy and dream like hue, as if she were carefully draping the finest of lace or chiffon across the camera lens; almost as if it was the physical manifestation of the mist shrouding the mansion frequently. While similar to her earlier Somewhere (2009), Coppola again deploys her light directing style here, in order to allow audiences to easily notice the subtle mood shifts and changing power dynamics among the women. Ultimately, I liken The Beguiled to Lost in Translation (2003), simply because it’s a career defining masterpiece for Sofia Coppola.
7.6 / 10