“I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them. I was clear about my decision — because I want to be respectful to that history.”
“I’m grateful to be your prisoner.” So says John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a corporal in the Union army who finds himself surrounded by a bevy of pale white misses. Just moments before, he lay bleeding against a tree in a southeastern Virginia swamp, and now, lo, he’s delivered into an unlikely second chance by 12-year-old Amy (Oona Laurence), a student at Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies.
It’s 1864. Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled doesn’t detail the wartime hardships endured by headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). No one says a word about stress or isolation or fear, though a note at the film’s start observes there aren’t “any men about there” and, oh yes, “the slaves left”.
Within this vacuum, the white girls maintain most of their routines, indicated in a series of exquisite closeups of their braided hair and laced bodices, their perfect penmanship, and their sewing circle. The girls obey their elders, even If Alicia (Elle Fanning) makes a teenager’s show of contesting the harder labors, like digging in the vegetable garden.
The gate just beyond their porch remains shut, the air inside their rooms airless, sunlight fighting its way through leafy trees and gauzy curtains. If the setting reminds you of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, there’s a reason: both projects were shot at Louisiana’s Madewood Plantation House (resulting in side-by-side photos shared on Elle Fanning’s Instagram). The use of this location, which dates back to the 1840s, speaks to The Beguiled‘s interest in history to a point.
John’s arrival at the house makes clear that this point is mixed up with metaphor and allegory. The lingering order of the white girls’ former lives is unhinged as he bows his head and performs his best imitation of a charming rogue: teachers and the students alike peer at him, plainly intrigued by his body, his beard, his blood. Martha assumes the need to tend to his grisly leg wound (“Bring me the anatomy book!”), picking out bits of metal and stitching the gash with thread and needle. She then spends long minutes washing John’s chest and thighs, the mobile frame close to her hands, suggesting her desire and his unconsciousness.
Again, this situation is in place only to a point. It’s only a matter of minutes before Martha, Edwina, and their charges – Amy and Alicia, as well as Marie (Addison Riecke), Emily (Emma Howard), and Jane (Angourie Rice) – are wrestling with what to do, whether to turn him over to passing Confederate soldiers or keep him for their own examination and experimentation. Of course, they don’t phrase the choice to themselves in this way, but the camera keeps your attention on their widening eyes, faux demurrals, and intensifying anxieties. “You should never have brought that blue belly here,” hisses Alicia initially, before she discovers as well an excitement in gaming him, in feeling selected, in her own quickening heartbeat.
As different girls pass in and out of John’s room, each develops her own expectations. Yet what emerges is less a competition than a serial delusion. Martha’s interaction with the insensible John is fleeting. His efforts to flirt with her lead exactly nowhere: “You are not a guest here,” Miss Martha reminds him. “You are a most unwelcome visitor.” John’s slowness in comprehending her resistance – his cockiness, you might say – is of a piece with his role here, the man used to getting his way. The film is shaped around the opposing forces of his presumption and Martha’s determination. “It seems like the soldier being here is having an effect,” she tells her girls, her way of announcing that his disruptiveness will end, that she will restore her house to its past order.
As you might expect, that disruptiveness alternates between the “evil” Martha identifies and the freedom other household members feel (or think they feel). “We’re both a little out of place here,” John whispers to Edwina, an echo of another line from another time. Back in 1971, when Don Siegel made his version of the film, also based on Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel, Clint Eastwood played the soldier. Back then, he proclaimed a shared sense of difference with a black slave, Hallie (Mae Mercer), saying they were both “prisoners”. Here, now, in this 2017 version, the prisoners seem to be less literal. Hallie’s absence changes this movie’s gendered, raced, and moral dynamics, of course, creating a hothouse of white girls’ desires that resonate throughout Coppola’s work, whether observed from swoony distances or crafted in visceral details, from The Virgin Suicides to The Bling Ring.
As much as Coppola’s own work and vision haunt The Beguiled, so too do other pasts. And as much as Coppola believes in her choices about which parts of American history (or Cullinan’s novel) she might engage, movies’ meanings emerge in their moments and their associations, stretching beyond their imagined frames: it’s how films live. In particular, and however much filmmakers try to sustain orders, films become meaningful in their engagements with viewers, whose experiences can be messy and, as they live in various times and places, evolving.
Certainly, today’s viewers of Siegel’s film will read it differently than those who first saw it in 1971. Each current moment brings with it changing political and emotional contexts. Some viewers of Coppola’s The Beguiled will read it along with the first version or maybe Lemonade. But even without Clint Eastwood and Mae Mercer or Beyoncé and Serena Williams in mind, however, The Beguiled‘s reminder that “the slaves left” evokes a very persistent past, the American past that, as William Faulkner famously reminds us, isn’t even past. Still, and again, race colors all bodies and informs all experiences. And these experiences, in turn, constitute the past and present that “young girls” of all backgrounds face daily.