Sofia Coppola’s sixth feature, The Beguiled, is an adaptation of Don Siegel’s 1971 film of the same name and, more distantly, Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel A Painted Devil. As in the original film, Coppola’s screenplay revolves around a Union soldier, John McBurney, who is discovered wounded outside a Southern seminary, in the dying years of the Civil War. Reluctantly, the mistress of the seminary, Martha Farnsworth, agrees to take McBurney in and nurse him, until he is well enough to hand over to the retreating Confederate troops. Given that there are no other men in the house – and no stable source of masculine authority in the entire vicinity – it’s only a matter of time before McBurney’s presence starts to galvanise and fascinate the girls and women living in the seminary, who range from twelve to about twenty. In particular, he appeals, in very different ways, to two of the strongest personalities in the seminary – a headstrong and promiscuous young woman played by Elle Fanning, and her nemesis, Martha’s second-in-command, played by Kirsten Dunst, who is far more chaste, matured and reserved. As McBurney works his way into the affections of the household, and the Union starts to emerge victorious, it becomes harder for Martha to know how to dispose of him, especially as she has started to depend upon him herself.
Apart from those broad similarities, however, this is an entirely different creature from both the original novel and Siegel’s iconic adaptation. For one thing, we now have two non-American actors in the lead roles, with Colin Farrell replacing Clint Eastwood as McBurney and Nicole Kidman replacing Geraldine Barnes as Martha. For another thing, the frantic superimpositions and vortical expressionism of Siegel’s camera is replaced by a much statelier sense of space, while the young women who live at the seminary also feel much more contained, circumscribed and in control of the contours of their bodies. Whereas the original film presented a kind of Union fantasy of the South as a writhing mass of polymorphous femininity in need of Northern regulation, here there’s much less of a sense of sexual desperation and indignity. Not only does Coppola refrain from sexualising the younger girls, but there is no hint of the incestuous relationship between Martha and her brother that made McBurney such an ambivalent paternal supplement the first time around. Only Elle Fanning’s brooding, sulky presence seems continuous with the first film, but even that is considerably more muted, moody and withdrawn here, as manicured, in its own way, as Kirsten’s Dunst’s radiant chastity.
Above and beyond all that, there is one even more noticeable difference from both the novel and the original film. There, Siegel presented Hallie, the last remaining slave, as the only real point of resistance or sceptical riposte to McBurney, but in Coppola’s version the slaves have all left, meaning that we are now presented with an entirely white cast, with even the novel’s one mixed race character subsumed into Dunst’s luminous whiteness. Taken in combination, these differences all suggest at least two major departures from Siegel’s version, as well as from the novel itself. First, this is a considerably less misogynistic film, or at least is less scathing in its vision of sexuality desire, even if the payoff is that the version of female sexual that is dignified is exclusively and suffocatingly white. Second, this no longer exactly feels like a period piece about the Civil War, and in some ways plays more like an echo of the original film than a direct adaptation, or a myth that has grown broader, quieter and cooler after circulating for decades.
Those differences are immediately clear in the depiction of the seminary itself, which is far dimmer and duskier than in Siegel’s version, and much more conducive to down time and empty idling. Whereas Siegel’s seminary was continuously in danger of being violated by the battle ebbing outside, in Coppola’s version the Civil War feels much more abstracted, with the action unfolding against a Lethean landscape of weeping willows, Spanish moss and the omnipresent sound of crickets somewhere off in the remote distance. In particular, the threshold of the seminary is much vaguer and more diffuse than in the original, whose continuous shots of the walls and gate are almost entirely absent here, while much less of the action takes place outside, and even then occurs largely at dawn or dusk. As a result, there’s not that much direct daylight, or even diurnality, in the film, with the characters all seeming to glide their way through a deepening crepuscularity that is always further away from day time but never quite night time either, confounding all distinction between inside and outside, and between the seminary and whatever putative world might lie beyond it.
Although the opening may specify that the film is set in 1864, then, it really feels as if the Civil War ended years ago – decades ago – and that it is barely even in the realm of recent or remembered history any more. Yet if The Beguiled never decisively anchors itself in the Civil War, it never appears to be quite set in the present – or to directly engage the present – in any emphatic way either. Instead, this is a film that occupies the long shadow cast upon whiteness by the Civil War, along with the erosion of white entitlement that has occurred in its wake. At the same time, this is also a film that takes place in the long shadow of cinema as well, since part of Coppola’s project was apparently to provide a counterpoint to The Bling Ring, a film that incorporated digital technology so strenuously that it seemed to be poised at the very threshold between cinematic and post-cinematic media. On the face of it, The Beguiled represents a retreat to a more stately and classicist cinematic register, but the irony of the film is that all the murky thresholds of The Bling Ring just seem to be reiterated and intensified by those efforts to escape them, to the point where digital technology becomes more pointed, in its absence, than the presence of Coppola’s analog classicism. In that sense, The Beguiled often feels like a period drama about Hollywood as much as a period drama about the Civil War – or a period drama about the way in which the legacy of the Civil War shaped Hollywood – as the absence of blackness and digitality comes to mean much the same thing. As with La La Land, there’s a prescience here that the nostalgic analog address is, in itself, a kind of whitewashing, with the difference that Coppola seems more aware of what is at stake in her classicism, and more willing to turn the subject matter of her film towards everything that it excludes.
For all those reasons, the excision of black characters didn’t exactly feel “off” to me, just because the film’s characters seem to inhabit a Southern mentality that hasn’t been able to catch up with the fact that the slaves have been released decades, even centuries ago. Even then, though, it’s as hard to say that the film is decisively set in the South as it is to say that it is decisively set during the Civil War, as Kidman and Farrell’s awry accents seem to instead evoke a more abstract Southernness that has seeped its way into a wider expanse of white voices, even or especially those who might think of themselves as being defined against the South in every possible way. In a more traditionally historical film, this fusion of American, British and Commonwealth inflections would work quite well to take us back to a time when the accents of American whiteness hadn’t yet solidified, and were still fluid, expansive and powerful enough to shape themselves into a genuinely global and hegemonic mode of address. Yet given the way that Coppola gradually untethers her film from history, the effect is to suggest that any gesture of white identification, however tasteful or tactful, is tantamount to a longing for this originary moment when the language of whiteness was still flexible enough to accommodate and internalise everything that might be opposed to it.
In that sense, Coppola is quite true to the 1971 version, which was fascinated with how the North might still be complicit in the devolution of the South, even or especially at the very moment at which it conceived of itself as the paternal saviour of the Confederacy. While North and South aren’t touchstones in the same way here – the seminary is now pointedly set in Virginia, rather than Mississippi – there’s a similar gesture at play in the manner in which Coppola collapses whiteness into Southern whiteness, as if to suggest that all whiteness in the United States is still somehow continuous and complicit with the Confederacy, even or especially as normative whiteness has tended to be defined as Northern ever since. While black characters may be removed here, their absence therefore makes a similar point to their presence in the original film, with Coppola seeming to glimpse that the two main options available to her – including a historicised black character or including a more contemporary black character – would work against the racial and social context she is now trying to articulate.
More specifically, the absence of black characters often feels like a gesture of self-regulation for Coppola, given the role that black music has played over the course of her films, which have all tended to focus on what might be called the waning of white charisma – or at least the growing prescience that what we think of as white charisma has always been an amalgamation of other cultures that have been deracinated in the process, and lost in translation. In particular, Coppola seems fascinated by the implications of this situation for white girlhood, which is, itself, so often appropriated and colonised by conservative agendas. Starting with The Virgin Suicides, her films have often played as an attempt to split the difference between evoking all the forces at work to co-opt white girlhood, and all the cultures that white girlhood appropriates in turn to resist and thwart those forces.
One of the most powerful of these forces is music, which treads a fine line, across Coppola’s oeuvre, between re-enfranchising white girlhood and subsuming other cultures into this horizon of white girlhood. On the one hand, the most explicit musical influence in Coppola’s films is her love for New Wave heroics, and contemporary artists who upon New Wave heroics. As a child of the 70s and 80s, this probably reflects a generational affiliation, but it’s also true that this was a time in popular music at which it first seemed possible (or seemed possible in a new kind of way) that women might become genuine bona fide rock stars, a potential that still continues to propel Coppola’s soundscapes some thirty or forty years later. On the other hand, however, Coppola has also increasingly drawn upon black music, especially hip-hop, initially subsuming it into her New Wave soundscapes, but finally dissociating it in The Bling Ring, which seems to glimpse a threshold at which it becomes impossible to consider white girlhood as separate from black girlhood. As a result, The Bling Ring was almost schizoid in its score, alternating between the most aggressive, abrasive rap excerpts, and a distillation of all Coppola’s New Wave impulses into an introspective ambient score composed by Oneohtrix Point Never, whose own electronic output also consists of reframing the most heroic of New Wave motifs into hauntological fragments of repurposed sound.
Given that The Bling Ring represented a kind of visual and sonic horizon for Coppola, it makes sense that The Beguiled is almost entirely devoid of any of her musical signatures, with synthesizers elided until the final sequence, and even then used as sparingly and residually as possible. Without that lush, romantic score to back them, her trademark characters and actors suddenly seem muted and parched, as if suddenly registering some devolution of white claims to charisma in both the half century since Siegel’s version and in the century and a half since the end of the Civil War itself. After all, the most racist depictions of the Civil War in classical Hollywood were always keen to subsume Confederate politics into Confederate charisma, while charisma itself has always tended to be framed as a Southern trait, against the more mellow and mature ethical profile of the North. Here, however, charisma is just what the women lack, and just what McBurney lacks in turn, in what often feels like a late version of The Bling Ring that has been forced to shed its musical skin. The fact that Phoenix – a quintessential Coppola band – are credited on the soundtrack just makes their virtual absence from the soundscape all the more startling and strange, as Coppola’s upbeat musical milieu seems to glimpse its own mortality amidst a deepening digital dusk that often reminded me of Gone Girl in its brackish, dusky expanse fallen trees, creeping vines and odd, oneiric shifts in scale.
Even in the noontide heat, then, Coppola seems unable or unwilling to draw upon the rousing spirit – or rousing melancholy – of her previous films, with every scene shrouded in shadow and muted by chintz, until it’s more like watching a ghost film than a period film. Perhaps that’s why the seminary, and Kidman’s presence in it, reminded me so much of the house in The Others, since here, as there, we seem to be watching a series of spectres living out their lives indefinitely, unaware that they have already died, and that the world has moved on without them. Continually “othering” the world beyond the seminary gates, the twist is that they are the real outliers, phantoms who have, inexplicably, been preserved in a morbid state of suspension that congeals into the haunting final image – a long shot of them standing outside the seminary after having buried McBurney, in which they seem to transform into a photograph before our very eyes, fixed and imprisoned in a past of their own making. Key to that process is Philippe le Sourd’s luminous, photographic cinematography – so different from Harris Savides’ work on The Bling Ring – which suffuses every face with a ghostly, skeletal pallor that makes it feel as if the bones are straining forth from beneath the skin, as if the characters have already becomes the selves that will finally stare out from the most faded, forgotten and decrepit of ancient dauguerrotypes.
Yet if The Beguiled is a ghost story, then it’s ultimately a comic ghost story, since there’s something vaguely ridiculous about the stilted formality of it all that almost plays as farce, especially during the most dramatic moments. As if prescient that the original film is shocking enough, and that shock is itself a kind of charisma, Coppola’s address becomes more bathetic and limpid as the crises accelerate, divesting them of pathos in what feels more like a devolution than an adaptation of the 1971 version. In other words, the real shock is just how little shock there really is – the trailer is easily more visceral than anything in the actual film – with the notorious and climactic moment of amputation occurring more as a matter of medical necessity than anything else, as Coppola opts for tactful euphemism rather than the bone-grating horror of Siegel’s visions. Admittedly, that means that the final third of the film can feel a little flat, and yet it’s a flatness that throws the entirety of The Beguiled into a new kind of relief in retrospect as well, in one of the most unusual and self-critical films in Coppola’s entire career and, in its own quiet way, one of her most profoundly comic gestures.