Can you make a movie about the Civil War without showing the suffering caused by the enslavement of black people in the South? Since the premiere of Sofia Coppola’s newest movie – The Beguiled – in Cannes earlier this year, this question has been an especially virulent one, especially on the Internet. And once again the question between artistic liberty and morality surfaces.
The Beguiled is a remake of the 1971 film with Clint Eastwood and an adaption of a novel by Thomas P. Cullinan. The main difference between the two films – so Coppola herself says – is the change of perspectives: from the male perspective in the 1971 movie to the female in Sofia Coppola’s adaption. In this, Coppola bases her argument for the exclusion of the history of black slaves on the fact that her story is one about femininity, not a story about race. She argues that she chose the period of the Civil War because it was a very intense time – and one might want to add after seeing the movie – that it was a time when there was as enormously large distance between the sexes compared to today. So you might think, rightfully so, that it is amorally to cut out the history of black slaves if you make a film about the Civil War. Yet, in its own small, insular, capsuled narrative, Coppola’s film does offer a legitimate, even insightful portrayal of the gender problematics in America’s Civil War era.
The film begins with Colin Farrell’s character, Corporal John McBurney – an Irish immigrant, now a mercenary for the Northern States – found by one of the girls of a near girls’ school. This girls’ school, located in an old colonial building in the South – is led by the strict Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and the introverted Edwina Dubney (Kirstin Dunst). Sofia Coppola manages to present a variety of attitudes to the stranger: from strong sentiments against him – referring to him as “the enemy” or “the Yankee” – to real empathy and bold sexual affection. In regard to Kirsten Dunst’s character, there is even something akin to love towards him. Very slowly, Coppola lets the story unfold and it is revealed to be mainly about the relationship between the girls and the Corporal.
There is a scene in the garden in which the girls are flirting with the Corporal and the metaphor of the Garden of Eden wouldn’t been farfetched in conveying the climactic, paradisiacal nature of the encounter for McBurney. After a big dinner with all the characters and probably too much drinking, even stiff Miss Martha seems to fall for John. Then everything changes. An incident between John and one of the girls. Following this, another tale begins to emerge: one of deep mistrust. There was seldom in modern film history such a precise and well-told story about our prejudices towards the other sex. If for anything, the last half hour the film warrants the film an Academy Award nomination.
The relationship between the Corporal and the girls, which gradually deepen during the first part of the film, take a stark turn at a very rapid velocity. Carefully, Coppola composes a picture of the Corporal as merely a projection of what the ladies decide him to be, and vice versa these ladies soon embody one of the enigmatic faces that John now believes them to be. If anything, it is most certainly an astute portrayal of humanity’s fickle, subjective conceptions of one another.