‘The Beguiled,’ castration anxiety
The poster for The Beguiled radiates with the visages of its three stars: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning. Kidman, who channels Deborah Kerr here as much as she did in The Others and who looks as if she hasn’t aged a day in the 16 years since that movie’s release, plays Martha Farnsworth of the Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, a bucolic finishing school deep in rural Virginia (although it looks more like Louisiana). It’s 1863. Cannon fire thunders incessantly in the distance, but there isn’t a man in sight. That is, until one of Martha’s students comes across the bleeding body of Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell). He’s a carpetbagger, a damn Yankee, but the young girl takes pity on the dying man and ushers him back to the boarding house. There, he’s tended to by the women, each of whom discovers that a masculine presence in this scrupulously feminine space conjures feelings they had abandoned around the time their men went off to war.
The premise is retrograde schlock, a remake of the 1971 oddity from Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood. The same year Dirty Harry cemented their reputations as champions of reactionary politics, the pair crafted a bizarre, half-forgotten piece of gauzy exploitation about, in Siegel’s words, “the basic desire of women to castrate men.”
The whole thing makes little sense. Aesthetically, it’s closer to a ghost story than a western or war picture; it reeks of Southern decay. Internal monologues play out externally as if it’s understood that the women are latently telepathic. There are even flashbacks that suggest their behavior is motivated expressly by incest and, more diffusely, something spectral. To say it’s odd is obvious—it’s downright strange. But more compellingly, viewed as a remnant of the early reaction to an emerging wave of feminism—a kind of proto-MRA manifesto—it gains a morbid appeal.
So it makes perfect sense, then, that Sofia Coppola might think to rework The Beguiled into an arch, snarky goof. Dispensing with the original’s gestures to the supernatural but retaining its mock seriousness, she identifies McBurney as the real threat to this gynic idyll. In Siegel’s version, McBurney was a wily captive and the women were damaged harpies. Coppola inverts the scenario so that we understand McBurney and his captors to be equally driven by earnestness: the women want to care for their prisoner, attend to his wounds; McBurney wants a good lay.
The material’s blatantly deviant impulses are an ill fit for Coppola’s delicate restraint. This is outrageous stuff, and Coppola’s approach is abstract—she aims to deconstruct its backward morality. Given the filmmaker’s innate tendency toward aloofness or withdrawn affectation, the movie’s deliberate front half emerges as an academic exercise. But once Farrell suffers the women’s maternal pragmatism and reacts with juvenile impotence, the whole thing swings into focus—all of that artistic preening (the crepuscular lighting, the pristinely chiffon framing) is setup for a sick joke.
The punchline is riotous and Farrell delivers it with ferocious commitment, but the construction seems off: isn’t this supposed to be Kidman’s movie? Or Dunst’s? Instead, it belongs entirely to Farrell, much the same way that Lost in Translation belonged to Bill Murray. Farrell is all oily charm—an id-driven, rakish fraud—and his motivation for remaining in this potentially deadly din of femininity is never hazy: at any given moment, whatever’s in front of him commands his attention. He’s an idiot rooster run amok, and his unhinged performance carries a charge missing in Coppola’s more winsome efforts. Kidman, Dunst, and Fanning, meanwhile, slink into the background; their radiance doesn’t hold a candle next to Farrell. That’s a consequential design flaw—consider it from a meta-textual perspective where the seminary is a Sofia Coppola movie. But on a purely visceral level, The Beguiled is Coppola’s most electric movie to date.
The Beguiled. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, and Kirsten Dunst. Opens in Kansas City June 30, 2017.