It takes a lot of gall to make a movie set during the civil war where the only reference to slavery, or black people in general, is “The slaves left.”
One line, passingly muttered from a small child right before a scene transition, is all the time Sofia Coppola seems to have for the people at the uh, center, of the setting she decided to set her movie in.
The other 93 minutes, 59-and-a-half seconds of The Beguiled places it’s focus on the women of the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies – a manners school for the daughters of the South’s upper crust, and their visitor, John McBurney – an injured Union soldier they decide to nurse to health before passing him over to the Confederate soldiers that stop by every other day or so.
The Farnsworth Seminary is a bubble of privilege, with the canons and gunshots of war no more than a distant storm past the tree-line for the girls to peer at through their spyglass. Even without the likely non-negligible number of slaves they would need to maintain the grounds of their stately southern manor, all the women and girls of the Seminary keep well fed and robed in exquisite clean silken dresses.
And, personally, I just can’t sympathize with people of this level of wealth in fiction anymore. Unless they spend their nights dressing up in themed costumes and fighting crime, I just can’t bring myself to see the wealthy as anything other than villains – and thats even before adding in the whole Confederate thing that these women got going on.
Even though I feel like I’m watching this movie incorrectly, my sympathies remain with Colin Farrell’s McBurney – an Irish immigrant who was paid $300 to take someone’s place in a war he has no stake in, got shot in the leg, and is now trapped behind enemy lines with only his masculine wiles keeping him out of a Confederate prison camp. Given his scenario, I think we can forgive McBurney for overestimating his charm on these delicate Southern debutantes.
I wish I could at least say that The Beguiled works as a fox-in-the-henhouse story removed from the trappings of the Civil War, but even there, it feels too restrained. There’s some humor to be found in the situation of course, probably best demonstrated in a scene where all the girls tell McBurney exactly how they contributed to the apple pie he enjoyed eating for dessert; but the women of the Seminary – and the movie in general – is too proper and mannered to ever become salacious, or even flirtatious. I understand that it’s supposed to be ambiguous as to whether McBurney is a corrupting sexual influence, or if he’s just lit a fuse on a barrel of sexual repression; but even the most flirtatious of the girls – as played by Elle Fanning – seems too cool to lose her head over the handsome soldier-man sleeping downstairs.
Feeling padded even at just over 90 minutes, there are plenty of gorgeous establishing shots of the Virginia wilderness that surrounds the house, with light dappling through untamed trees, mushrooms growing in their shadows. There’s a definite fairy-tale quality to the aesthetic – one that’s only increased by the girls’ elaborate gowns – but I really couldn’t help but imagine how humid and sweaty everything must be.
American cinema has had a weird fetish for the Confederacy since, well, basically forever, with Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation being the two exemplars. But, even in Trump’s America, I would hope that a movie about Southern Debutantes defending their honor from a Northern immigrant carpetbagger wouldn’t play the same as it might have 80 years ago. The Beguiled is a pretty flower, but it doesn’t smell so sweet.