There is a wounded stranger in the music room of Mrs Farnsworth’s seminary, a Union soldier from Ireland, a deserter with a leg wound, a man, not exactly young, but handsome. What to do? He is a Yankee, they are all from the South, so shall they hand him over to the Confederate troops nearby, or should they do the Christian thing and dress his wounds first? Mrs Farnsworth herself, the head teacher Mrs Morrow and the five pupils all feel an undercurrent of fear because that deserter might bring the War to their school, a war they watch every evening through a telescope from the upper balcony of their mansion, and they see the black plumes of smoke just beyond the treeline. Sometimes the boom of cannon-fire can be heard. That’s the situation at the beginning of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled. It’s a must-see, because who tells stories about groups of girls or women better than Coppola? The movie is set in Virginia in 1864, but it resembles Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999) in more ways than one.
That man, Corporal John McBurney, is the first human being allowed to stay with them, and so becomes a screen for their projections. Amy, for instance, the girl who finds him, is happy to befriend him because he is interested in animals and birdsong, just like her. For Alicia, he is her romantic hero, and she kisses him while he is unconscious, or pretends to be. For Jane, he is one of those feared abusers of women; the army is full of those, she is convinced. Strangely, McBurney knows exactly what to say depending on which female enters the music room. That’s only strange until you realise that the movie subtly employs the female gaze instead of observing the situation from a neutral point of view. Sofia Coppola took the 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan as the starting point, threw out the side stories about incest and slavery that also feature in the 1971 Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood version, wrote a new screenplay, and made it into a movie about female desires.
There is an early scene where Mrs Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) washes McBurney’s sooty body while he is still unconscious, and would really like to peek under his undergarments, just a little, only to tell him the next day in stern tones that he is a most unwelcome visitor and will have to leave until his wounds have healed. He quickly agrees. Why not? It’s what she wants to hear. Mrs Morrow (Coppola’s frequent collaborator Kirsten Dunst), the head teacher, wants nothing more than to run away from the rigid monotony of the seminary and finally do what she wants. And she sees McBurney’s imminent leave as her key to leave alongside him. He agrees. And so on. Long-simmering wishes come to the surface, but they are not overwhelming to any of the women. They are thrown into relief by the presence of a man, but it is up to the women to act upon those wishes.
Then there is a scene where McBurney finally gets active and enters the chamber of one of the women, only to be found out and pushed down the stairs by another woman who expected him in her chamber that night, so that a third woman has to amputate his lower leg. He is seething with impotent rage, walking on crutches and waving a gun around, and the movie’s tone gets somewhat darker. There is a short scene where the women and girls bury his lower leg. Is it a heartfelt ritual, or are they hiding evidence, or do they want to bury their guilt? Do they even mourn his masculinity? Maybe it’s a little of all of those. It’s really up to you what you make of moments like this. Some of the scenes seem to win back their politeness, but there is suspicion and envy so thinly veiled, it’s palpable, almost part of the air in the room, and the movie is spinning towards… Oh, I didn’t know at any point what would happen next. That is part of the movie’s charm. There is a dream-like atmosphere in the seminary, supported by fog and sun-dappled wild gardens and soft light falling in through high windows.
The Beguiled also seems to quote other movies. There is a scene where Nicole Kidman’s character goes from room to room with a revolver, and I had to think of The Others (2001), that excellent horror movie where Kidman goes from room to room with a loaded shotgun because there are unexplained noises threatening her light-sensitive children; and there was also a soldier knocking at her door later. There is also an undercurrent of Picknick at Hanging Rock somewhere in The Beguiled. Colin Farrell’s role is similar to that in Liv Ullmann’s Miss Julie (2014): smooth seduction first, rage and violence later. I have not seen the Clint Eastwood version, but here, Colin Farrell’s McBurney is bedridden for the first half, and later yelling about castration while missing half of his leg. McBurney is at the mercy of those women, but gives in to his own desires. In a sense, all of the women are stronger than him.
I am glad to report that the movie never spills over into horror; the women have their opinions and their fears, and once the Corporal is no longer a threat, they pretty much become themselves again. (There is a very funny scene around the dinner table involving apple pie.) Yes, of course they have changed, but their resentment towards each other, while it might still simmer, might dissipate quickly with the morning fog, and they are once more alone and still trapped in that mansion. And there is still a war on, remember?