How 'The Beguiled' Reclaims Sexual Desire For Women
Sofia Coppola's latest film offers a perspective audiences don't often see in mainstream Hollywood: The Beguiled is a narrative told through the female gaze. The 2017 iteration, (previously a book and a 1971 film) is about a southern all-girls school who takes in an injured Union soldier during the Civil War. It's a look at female sexuality, desire, and longing in a time when sexual expression was almost impossible. And while the previous film was told through the eyes of its sole male character, this year's rendition gives the power and perspective back to the women. (It also won its director, Sofia Coppola, the award for best directing out of Cannes Film Festival, making her the second woman ever to take home the award: "The best part was I walked down the street in the West Village and women would be like, 'Go Sofia!' A lot of women felt a part of it with me, and my daughters were really proud," she tells me over the phone.) But making history aside, the film offers a unique look inside the curious and lustful brains of its characters, which range from grade-school girls to middle age women.
"The original film was from a male point of view, the soldier’s point of view. I thought I’d like to make the new film focus on the women — a foreign soldier coming into their world and how that affects them. Most movies you see are not from that point of view," she says. "I was making something that I wanted to see... for women, my girlfriends, gay men."
The story unfolds as the soldier, played by Colin Farrell, begins to seduce the various women, played by Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning — to name a few. It is ambiguous to the audience what the soldier's intentions are, and what the women's intentions might be, too. It becomes a cat and mouse game of seduction and survival.
"In the Don Siegel film the [women] come off as deranged and crazy. I wanted to show that they’re human, that their desires are part of their humanity — and normal. Of course they’d be affected by being cut off from the world like that."
Add in a heavy dose of sexual tension and the backdrop of the hot, swampy South, and Coppola has painted a hazy, almost dream-like place for the women's interactions with their captured soldier to unfold. "They’re in this delicate world of southern ladies, then this man comes in who’s dirty and hairy and dark, there's a real contrast between them. He gets to be the object of all their desire," the 46-year-old director says.
But this is rare. Audiences may be immune to seeing women as sexual objects on film; it has happened, and continues to happen, so frequently it may not give movie-goers pause. It can't be argued that more films showcase the male experience, the male point of view, the male objectification of women, than the opposite. Last year, Transparent creator Jill Soloway said, "Movies are the male gaze." So it's a welcome change that Coppola aims to do the opposite.
All of this on-screen tension builds to a (spoiler alert) primal release when Kristen Dunst's and Colin Firth's characters finally sleep together. But, somewhat surprisingly, the act isn't romanticized or even very sexy. According to Coppola, this was entirely intentional.
"The sex scene with Kirsten... that was challenging for me. I've always been kind of shy about those scenes, but I wanted to make it feel real and not romantic. After all this tension there’s a real bodice ripper moment and then, she doesn’t know what she’s doing. They don’t kiss in it, it’s just sort of brutal and animalistic." Again, it's a scene that's portrayed from the woman's POV — as unflattering or startling as it may be to watch.
There's a lot to digest in The Beguiled — the character's murky motives, the power play between genders, the idea that women crave sexual exploration and liberation — all bathed in heavenly sunlight and candle-lit dinners. It's a visual and intellectual feast, and because we experience these ideas through the film's many women, The Beguiled gives audiences something worth digesting.