Cannes 2017 Review: The Beguiled
I’ve never found The Beguiled source material to have a strong feminist message, but my expectations were different for Sofia Coppola’s adaptation. Yet, women coming together with deceit after they’ve shown cattiness towards each other because of their sexual desires to a man doesn’t read to me as a feministic, controlled vision. Despite The Beguiled simple pleasures, Coppola doesn’t bring the same richness to her adaption as Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel or Don Siegel’s 1971 film of the same name.
A few girls are all that is left at Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies as the third summer of the Civil War dawns. A wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) stumbles upon the Virginia soil around the property after deserting and is found by one of the younger school children. Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) hesitantly agrees to bring him into and tend to his wounds and the girls and women of the house begin to lose their sheltered attitude around the house guest. Edwina (Kristen Dunst), the teach of the school, especially falls for the charms of the Corporal. Bickering and one-upping ensues as his stay becomes more and more permanent.
There is a pulpy, trashiness to the project that makes for a lot of fun. The woman resort to passive aggressiveness over verbal sparring and that lends itself well to the hazy sensuality. Sadly, the woman don’t only deliver the micro-aggressions, they are the victims of them, too. This has always been the case in The Beguiled story, but this time there isn’t enough brewing underneath to make the trash and camp fully work. As a result, the women become the butt of the joke, especially when the Corporal is first invited to dinner by Farnsworth. Each of the young ladies wear their most beautiful, revealing dresses and full make-up. The camera slowly pans across the table, exposing the women as they giggle flirtatiously. It is funny, but it is also gross and uncharacteristically subjective.
Furthermore, the Corporal’s character is far too passive and harmless for a large part of the movie. His manipulation is what provoked the women in previous material, which made the story more meaningful. In Coppola’s version, the Corporal is a victim of the women and the jealousy between themselves. It is a minor change that builds to the mystery and tension, but it makes for a disgusting, reductive portrayal of the women of Farnsworth’s house. The Corporal’s development from helpless to abuser is botched. But, the women’s switch from aroused to protective largely comes across as mishandling of desire.. The Siegel adaptation implies that the women were victims from the beginning so when they came together it was triumphant and necessary. From my perspective, the Coppola version turns the Corporal into the women’s hostage until the last act. It’s slimy.
All of that being said, The Beguiled is a nearly technically perfect movie. The three lead performance from Kidman, Dunst and Farrell are all strong, especially the two women. Kidman’s take on Farnsworth is sober and stern, but her loneliness chips away delicately. It is like many of Kidman’s great performances: She shows layers in her characters by maintaining qualities and slowly adding contradictions. Dunst’s Edwina is the same way, but her longing is sadder and something very much of the time. Out of all of the female characters, she is the most vulnerable to the Corporal’s charms, but her performance is sympathetic of the plight of a bored, lonely school teacher.
Yet, good performances, funny writing and beautiful art direction and cinematography don’t save the film from its “female problem.” This year’s Cannes awards were a landmark for women director who have never been given the chance to breakthrough at the festival. Sofia Coppola won the best director award, only the second woman ever to do so and the first in 56 years. This statistic is appalling and it’s no accident that three awards were shared between the women directors in competition. Juror Jessica Chastain used the press conference as a platform to address her dismay in the competition depiction of women without their own agency and being followers of men. Yet, the decision to award a film about strong women that become engrossed by a man so much that they turn on each other makes little sense to me. Perhaps I’m not at liberty to discuss or analyze this and maybe my expectations for Coppola was part of the problem.
Film criticism has always been a sort of echo chamber of similar voices and women’s voices are certainly unrepresented. Ultimately, my take on this comes from my own experiences and may be a misrepresentation of the reception from the people this movie was made for. Seek out female critics, not just for this film, but for all.