Movie Review: "The Beguiled" - When Southern White Womanhood Went Off -


Monday, July 31, 2017

MOVIE REVIEW/The Beguiled (2017)
Mythical Southern White Womanhood Abdicates Its Pedestal In Civil War Virginia, 1864

Nicole Kidman (center) as Miss Martha heads Farnsworth Seminary in 1864 Virginia in Sofia Coppola's edition of "The Beguiled". 
Focus Features

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, July 31, 2017

Note: "The Beguiled" opened on June 30 across the U.S. and Canada and continues to play in numerous theaters in both countries.

The overt politics of race and sex in Don Siegel's raw, somewhat campy "The Beguiled" of 1971 are stripped from Sofia Coppola's genteel, polite 2017 edition, as "all the slaves have gone", a character says initially to seriously injured Union Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell).  Mr. Farrell is more doe-eyed Bambi to Clint Eastwood's beyond-the-boundaries Dirty Harry-like McBurney.  His character's lowly bedraggled presence makes Ms. Coppola's thriller as subtle, stark and as devastating as her stunning omission of Black people in the South in 1864 Civil War Virginia, where Ms. Coppola's film, based on Mr. Siegel's, is centered.

The white ladies and girls of Farnsworth Seminary scorn McBurney before sexual tension, lust and longing submerge their hostilities.  "I was talking to the Colonel privately," says one, when caught leaning over his bed by a more senior Seminary member.  None are immune to the man in their lair.  Each of the women and girls is different.  Some seek power.  Others genuine love.  Others a father figure.  Others affection.  Still others attention.

The womens' pent-up desires are suppressed anger to being long oppressed by men, specifically Southern white men.  It is way too simplistic to say that the cloistered women are merely starved for sex.  The women kill McBurney with lust and compete for his affections but it all feels like desperate rage.  (The women are really competing with each other for power.)  Some of the women's use of the word "enemy" refers more to McBurney being male than being a Union soldier.  These Seminary women are castoffs.  They yearn for escape.  They have been scarred, indoctrinated and dominated by men -- imprisoned by them.  An exquisite lingering shot by Ms. Coppola epitomizes the women's imprisonment and lack of freedom.  McBurney, a rogue and scoundrel who plays the women against each other and deceives them in his visions of a ready-made harem, is more free in demise than the women are in life.

The projections and metaphors of Ms. Coppola's well-made drama scream in stereo.  After McBurney loses a limb you may be inclined to think his manhood has gone.  But the sexist opportunist McBurney plays on the myth of Southern white womanhood and its gentility, exploits all he can from it, yet is horrified when monstrous women who are anything but professed Christians strike back with a vengeance.  McBurney, wounded less by the Confederates, uses sexist expectations to assume the comfort of female strangers.  He is naive.  Another war is really going on.  None of the players on Ms. Coppola's stage are innocent -- and the airbrushing of enslaved Blacks on this canvas is a huge problem.

Nicole Kidman personnifies icy power and envy as Miss Martha, a role Geraldine Page memorialized so well in 1971 -- a character that belongs with the malevolence against men that Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched character personnified two years later in "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest".  Ms. Kidman's Martha wants sexual satisfaction from McBurney but it is power she truly wants.  Sex is only a small part of that power.  When the women Miss Martha has power over deny her, she reasserts power over them by getting to McBurney.  Her act, not in good faith, is as close to a "rape" of McBurney -- a permanent disfiguring without consent -- that "The Beguiled" comes to.

Mr. Farrell -- he may be characterized by some as of the "Black Irish" persusasion -- may be the closest metaphor to a Black man or woman in "The Beguiled".  His McBurney is a synonym template for the very lust some Southern white women had for enslaved Black men in the pre-1800s and beyond.  Those particular women would long to have sex with their enslaved men.  Woe betide those Black men if they refused to comply.  Refusal meant their lives.  Once those women lied to their husbands that the enslaved Black man raped them, only one thing followed.  Because of the absence of Black people in "The Beguiled" this point looms ever larger.

Not completely unlike Chris in "Get Out", Jordan Peele's ingenious 2017 horror film set in the forestry of Alabama, McBurney is brought to the Seminary, ogled and feasted upon before being taken apart by the greed and objectification of white vultures.  Those iron gates of the Seminary that has locked these women far away from the world around them may as well be gates at a zoo designed by men to suppress women.  All that is missing from the gates is a sign that reads, "DANGER: DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS."

"The Beguiled" is about the female quelling of male dominance over women.  As the men do the fighting the women do the plotting.  The women plot against Confederate Southern men.  Ammunition is requested from one soldier for a possible future rebellion.  Deceit accompanies the request.  The prim and proper Seminary ladies plot against Union men.  In Sofia Coppola's film of gender war you don't need a man to get ahead if you are a woman.  You must vanquish or emasculate him to be free and independent -- and that comes at a price. 

Also with: Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Addison Riecke, Angourie Rice, Emma Howard, Wayne Pere.

"The Beguiled" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for some sexuality.  There is also some mild (or not so mild) gore.  The film's running time is one hour and 34 minutes.

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