Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone
Sofia Coppola has a way with portraying the idleness of adolescent boredom. In The Virgin Suicides, one of the most instantly recognizable films in her collection of work, the viewer is coerced into sitting through at least ten scattered minutes of stillness, witnessing the dullness of teendom as if they were an unwanted outsider peering in through a half-draped window. The viewer, whose gaze undergoes the transformation from innocuous viewership to voyeurism halfway through the film, endures lethargic scenes that depict the eventual destruction of the Lisbon sisters—whether it be Cecilia’s gory suicide, Lux idly smoking a cigarette, or Bonnie brushing her hair. Every element of their coming of age is studied. Through this, Coppola is able to bridge the gap between the viewer, the band of boys that hyper-fixate on them, and the unsurmountable Lisbon sisters themselves; by the end of the film, the viewer, who scrutinizes their every movement and studies them for signs of life, feels as invasive as the boys that fetishize them.
Alongside each and every Coppola-penned film, this accentuation of stillness is carried over into The Beguiled. It works; although the girls’ school was operating in the midst of the Civil War, and brutality and barbarism nearly ravaged on their front doorstep, the confusion and unspooled monotony of girlhood (which was shown in seven distinct stages) does not stop beating. Alicia and Marie hoe the vegetable garden in a bored stupor, Jane and Emily sing and play hand games in their recreational time, and Edwina struggles to assert her dominance over the flummoxed students. This mystified and half-glamorized film of idleness helps to dramatize the arrival of Corporal McBurney. A remnant of the outside world that they have been sheltered from, he interrupts the boredom they have been so accustomed. He encases the girls’ school in a shade of enchantment. The girls now have the most dangerous game of impressing the new visitor to keep themselves occupied.
Coppola adds a much-needed element of femininity that was missing from the original Clint Eastwood film. The touch of girlishness works in tandem with the characters’ burgeoning femininity and helps to further contrast the untouched piety of the girls’ school with the foreignness of the Corporal; when the insidiousness of the Corporal’s resentment towards Miss. Martha’s butchering begins to infiltrate the peaceful atmosphere of the school, his menacing masculine presence clashes with the polarizing nature of the girls’ intimate bond.
There are a number of elements that work in The Beguiled. Alongside the stunning visuals and decent casting, the uniformity of the female bond (which began as they all dressed up for the first dinner with the Corporal and ended with the near-ritualistic poisoning) was a facet of the film that was entirely enjoyable. Coppola was able to do what she does best—depict the female condition.
The white female condition.
The Beguiled is surely representative of the integrity of white feminism. Its location—the same plantation that scenes from Lemonade were filmed—is entirely ironic. Lemonade, which celebrates black womanhood, the political interplay between race and feminism, and the unification of an unsung history with the hopeful, spangled future, seems to contrast the themes that are explored within The Beguiled. Coppola makes it known that the stale seismic plight of the White Woman is more of a compelling story than the unclouded black women that characterized the original film and inspiratory novel.
The true character of the Civil War is completely stripped from its core and bracketed into three words that Amy mutters within the first five minutes of the film—“the slaves left.” The erasure of the most important political and social facet of that time period—race—is senseless; if the film tackles the ubiquitous themes of female sexuality, male-female power play, and pedophilia, the complexity of the issue of slavery could have been easily addressed. Making a Civil War-era film about the exclusivity of gender politics that coincidentally eschews race is completely counterproductive.
How the hell do you whitewash the Civil War?
Attempting to decipher The Beguiled and what conversations it was intended to engender is pointless. It seems as if Coppola struggled to pinpoint what exactly she wanted the film to be; misplaced humor (the reactionary laughter of the audience at inappropriate moments in the film is off-putting, yet understandable; if Coppola felt compelled to implement some degree of humor into her film, she should have accentuated the humility of girlhood), an unsurprisingly misleading trailer, and a feckless pseudo-feminist discourse detracts from the impact of the film that could have had the potential to uphold relevance in a time of political turmoil. A lack of emotional transformation rendered half of the plotline bland, leaving missed opportunities for inter-character intensity and insidiousness to never be brought into fruition. The marketing strategy was tacky and promised a false challenging of themes that were never addressed (the deconstructing of the male gaze, the exploration of female sexuality, and a different perspective on history).
Coppola should just stick to what she does best: popularizing the plight of privileged women at their most vulnerable.
The Beguiled will be released into theaters on June 30.