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The Beguiled and the Dialectic of Sex

Elle Fanning, a young and beautiful girl stares at her reflection in an oval mirror on her dressing table. She is dressed in a late 19th century pale blue dress with her hair upswept, tendrils hanging down.
Elle Fanning stares at her reflection in the beautiful period piece, The Beguiled.

You may have heard about the latest controversy regarding Sofia Coppola’s film adaptation of the book by Thomas Cullinan, The Beguiled.  While being criticised for not including the female slave character, Maddie, from the book, Coppola defends herself and the movie by saying that the film is not about slavery or the war itself, but about “…the isolation of these women, cut off from the world and in denial of a changing world.”  She believed that including the character would further minimize the important role of slavery in the war (as Maddie is an ancillary character in the book, not well voiced and dealt with pejoratively).  In other words, she felt she could not do the character justice within the context of her film.

Coppola takes a very pragmatic, almost documentary-like approach to her characters and how they are filmed.  I can only explain it as a feeling of emptiness around them that is so pervasive that it feels as though there is an invisible character in the room – someone we can’t quite see, but continue looking for.  I found myself searching the shadows, waiting for something or someone to pop out.Nicole Kidman stands behind the gates of her Georgian mansion, greeting the Rebel soldiers as they check in on her.But what has yet to be fully explored is how well Coppola dealt with those woman who are in the film as both history and psychology would require. 

While the actual cinematography is lush and romanticized with soft focus, hazy shots of Spanish Moss languidly hanging from the trees, and dead flowers, unattended in the garden, the women, in contrast go about their days with rigid adherence to the rules of their former lives.  Their school is the private home of the headmistress, Miss Martha, played by Nicole Kidman, and it is an extraordinary example of the architecture and formality of the time.  Those students who are left there have no place to go, no real home to return to, and are reluctantly continuing on with their studies and routines in the vain hope that soon the war will be over and life will return to “normal”.  The shots of them are long, wide shots.  We see them as emotionally distant, reserved, almost lifeless.  The children, on the other hand are intrigued, curious, sweet, gentle and ruthless with each other.  We see them as children playing, learning and becoming women.  

When young Jane finds an injured Union soldier, played by Colin Farrell in the woods while she’s out picking mushrooms, her instinct is to help him.  He leans on her to hobble back to their school and as he collapses on the front porch, they all encircle him to inspect their surprise “guest”.  Nicole Kidman’s character tends to his injuries with the help of Edwina, played excellently by Kirsten Dunst.  Kidman must sew up his wound, a tasks she seems familiar with, and one which is shot with a documentary style honesty that made me look away once or twice.  But she must also clean him ala sponge bath which involves undressing him.  As he happens to be played by Colin Farrell, I doubt anyone watching the film had any complaints.  Of course she can’t help notice his beauty, and neither do the other girls.  The little ones look at him starry eyed, and the women look at him with a little something extra in their eyes.  Coppola said when interviewed that she “… also focused on how they (the women and girls) deal with repression and desire when a man comes in to their abandoned world, and how this situation affects each of them, being at different stages of their life and development.”

And so our stage is set for intrigue, secrecy, desire and love, and all of these are exposed and explored in the story.  Farrell is charming, handsome, insightful, sensitive, intelligent, polite, and impolite when the moment calls for it.  His character is engaged in a high stakes game of survival, cloaked in the fragrant perfume of the South.  As one character puts it, they wish to show him some southern hospitality, even if he is the enemy.  And then there’s God.  Saving his life only to return him to the Rebel Army is the only Christian thing to do.

So Farrell sets out to either seduce or charm these women and girls into letting him go, or if needs be, letting him stay on, because they need a man to protect them, and tend to the garden which has grown out of hand.  Hmm…


The injured soldier, Colin Farrell leans in to a young lady played by Elle Fanning, in a sujestive manner. He is dressed in his Union uniform and she in a pale pink dress with lace around the neck. She casts a glance back, aware of his not so subtle pressence.
Colin Farrell approaches Elle Fanning in the parlor with a drink in hand and something entirely different on his mind.

We as the audience examine him from the female perspective, and so it becomes difficult to tell if he really is all he seems to be or if he is a fox in the hen house.  Kidman’s character is suspicious, Dunst’s character is vulnerable and the girls are easily taken in.  What is one to do?

Indeed, I found myself wondering what I would do in their situation.  I decided that I was of the mind of the Dunst character.  I would fall for him passionately, and it would all go “south” rather quickly.  

There are many lessons to be learned from this film but I don’t know how many people will be interested in learning them.  The film explores the underlying dialect between men and women; the power that each of us holds and resends when it comes to desire, sex and even love –  the power that the women hold over the wounded soldier, to heal, to comfort and tend to.  And ultimately, to decide if he lives or dies.  

The women of The Beguiled gather around the piano in anticipation of a small concert for the corporal. They are in Civil War period clothing, mostly whites and pale pinks in a darkened, cepia toned room.
The cast of The Beguiled waits for their audience around the piano.


Their first equivocation, to take him in and not tell the Rebel Army because he would not make it through the journey back to camp; their second, to hold off telling the army, even when they appear at their front gate, because he is not fully healed, the third because the army has moved on and they won’t be back for weeks to take him into custody.  These start out as reasons and end up as excuses to keep the man they all desire for one reason or another, around.  Interestingly, the women make the life or death decisions with a vote.


But what about Farrell’s character’s power?  Well, he has the power to enchant, to charm, to relate to anyone on any level.  Indeed, he is a master of narcissistic manipulation.  And it is only when they decide that they should let him go on his own way, being sufficiently healed and with no date that the army will return, that his true nature comes into indisputable daylight.  

After an accident and subsequent surgery, he is left feeling helpless and less of a man.  He then resorts to brutal honesty and violence.  It is the women’s turn to protect themselves against his threats and they do so in a completely different way.  Both Farrell and the women use their skills at subterfuge and manipulation, and this, I think, is where the film gets interesting.  The slow build is something the audience may not be able to tolerate in our times of easy answers given to us by our phones and ipads and tablets.  But Coppola reminds us that some things really are worth waiting for.  

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Melody Stewart is the founder of act.land and President of iactingstudioskc.com. She is a filmmaker in Kansas City.