The Beguiled: When Men Are Objectified and Women Are Unsettling
Imagine, a man thrust into a home full of sexually repressed women. Resistance is futile.
Union soldier John McBurney (Colin Farrell) learns this lesson too late in Sofia Coppola’s enigmatic and sexually charged drama, The Beguiled. A remake of the 1971 adaptation by Don Siegel and based on the 1966 novel A Painted Devil by Thomas Cullinan, Coppola’s revision of the film decidedly takes on a subtler tone. The Beguiled won Coppola the Best Director award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for exploring female empowerment, repressed sexuality, and the paradox of being women.
In the woods surrounding an isolated Southern plantation home, little Amy (Oona Laurence) crosses paths with an injured enemy soldier, McBurney. Having escaped battle in a cowardly move to evade death, he’s taken in and tended to by the women of an isolated school run by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman).
Despite their initial trepidation at a man in their home, the women begin warming up (or heating up?) to the stranger. Soon, all the house's inhabitants start vying for McBurney’s attention, including the matriarch Martha, the melancholic Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), the flirtatious Alicia (Elle Fanning), and on a more innocent level, even the younger girls, Jane, Amy, Emily, and Marie. Sexual tension escalates, taboos are tested, and sanity is questioned.
The Beguiled isn’t your typical historical film—and these aren’t your typical high-bred ladies. Genteel as they look, they are not stupid, placid dolls. If anything, these angelic Southern belles might be more likely to offer you poison than tea, but only after they say grace.
Neither is the film a melodrama by any definition—it's a slow simmer that captivates with its controlled sense of chaos. Distant and almost cold, the film’s atmosphere is drenched in sexual energy, but limited to its repressed, controlled brand of turmoil. While the film gets intense, it never falls into reckless abandon—a mark of Coppola’s directing style. See, the women of the film are evidently sinking into their innate carnal drives (an almost Freudian trace if you will)—and to top it all off, they’re bored. And McBurney, to his fortune (more like misfortune), serves as a reprieve to their boredom.
Coppola made a good choice in casting Farrell as her lead (and only man). With Farrell, McBurney exudes an effortless charm that makes you question if it’s Colin or the character. Chivalrous and aggressive, Colin masterly steps into the countless roles bestowed upon him by the women of the house. Whether he’s the unwelcome stranger, kind guest, gentleman, menace, fantasy, coward, lover, or villain, McBurney remains the unwitting pawn in this game. The women themselves are unaware of their participation, but they hold all the cards nonetheless.
While the Don Siegel’s 1971 version of the film was essentially about a rooster in a henhouse, Coppola strips the story of its misogynistic undertones. But that doesn’t mean that the story has softened in any way—in fact, the violent undercurrents of the film are quiet yet all encompassing. The women, are quite frankly, unsettling.
It’s strange to see the dichotomy of this feature film produced halfway across the world and its relevance to what’s going on now. For once, the tables have turned and it’s the man who’s objectified (Kirsten Dunst said it so herself) and the women doing the objectifying.
Some people might generalize the film as just a story about a crazy sexually repressed white girl, and in a way it is. But there’s more to it under the angelic facades of these anti-heroines. The symbols in The Beguiled run deep—and they are almost radically feminist.
Taking on the female gaze, the women are the ones with the upper hand as they consciously and unconsciously objectify and emasculate McBurney. While Coppola is most likely unaware of the pastors plaguing this side of the globe, the currency of sexual objectification is universal. By turning the tables, Coppola has given us an unsettling and all too true view of our sexist reality—whether she intended to or not. With The Beguiled, the last note of this suspenseful opera is bitter—a look at the world when people, and men, are disposable.
Replace the word men with women. Does the idea sound familiar?
The Beguiled is now showing in cinemas.