It has been done from many angles. And it almost always involves choices. The ones we make because we think we know what is happening. The ones we set aside because to deal with them involves facing our deepest fears. And, in the case of this stunning motion picture, it also involves the South and all it’s contradictions, repressions and attitudes of servitude.
The Beguiled is more than a remake of the 1971 Don Siegel film starring Clint Eastwood. It is, in every sense of the word, an update, reflecting not how far we’ve come, but how much further we have to go before we can begin to think about freedom and equality for all.
The women stand on the front steps of a dilapidated Southern plantation house, staring out at the muddy road beyond the gate, a road traversed back and forth by battered Confederate troops heading towards or away from the forever fluctuating front. Outside the gates is all restless movement. Inside the gates we find stasis. The gates provide a convenient line of demarcation for writer/director Sofia Coppola. Years ago, her father used a similar visual motif to suggest the closed and sealed-off world of the Corleone clan.
The women in this saga are glimpsed between the iron bars of the enclosing gate, isolated from the world of men. The story emerges as a fairy tale where beautiful spirited women and girls -,flawed and filled with contradictory impulses – are locked away from the larger world and how a man disrupts their quiet; how much turbulence a man can bring.
The film opens with a haunting sequence as a small girl gathers mushrooms in a quiet forest. The air is soon shattered by distant canon fire. The child then discovers the wounded John McBurney, a Union soldier who fled from his regiment when the battle was at its height. McBurney symbolizes something different to each one of the women. He’s something of a shape-shifter, sometimes friendly, or flirty, sometimes polite, sometimes earnest.
Coppola appears to be interested in the fleeting, in things not easily said, and here she is interested in the ridiculousness of repressing the sex drive. The film is about that house, the pewter-toned light inside, the way the sunset catches the tops of the columns, the women floating through the overgrown yard, the younger girls lying in the same bed, limbs intertwined, practically a Coppola signature at this point. The interior is the female realm, where women dominate and the male lies in repose, to be gawked at and fussed over. Coppola is not that focused on explicit commentary or contextualizing larger issues;her interests lie in the peripheral; in what happens when things get quiet; in the way bodies arrange themselves in the frame.
You can see it in all of her films. The teenage girl seeking a peek at V.C. Andrews’ “Flowers in the Attic,” propped up on her slender thighs in Lick the Star. The five blonde sisters flopped in a pigtails long limbs and flaxen hair in The Virgin Suicides. The young woman curled up on the windowsill in her hotel room, her body floating over the cityscape below in Lost in Translation. These moments don’t lead anywhere, but still they have enormous resonance and they tend to linger in your head, just like the best fairy tales do.