In early June, director Sofia Coppola put her foot in her mouth when discussing how her latest movie, The Beguiled, omitted a black character featured in its source material. The filmmaker told Buzzfeed News that she didn't want to brush over a heavy topic like slavery in the movie, insisting that, “At the heart of the story, it’s really about the power dynamics between men and women that are universal." Much has been written about Coppola's comments, with some critics deeming the film an example of white feminism, and while it may be true that the director chose to ignore the racial dynamics of the Civil War South in favor of exploring gender dynamics, the problem is that The Beguiled doesn't really do gender dynamics any favors, either. Instead, it reverts its leading ladies to their base sexual urges, all for the attention of the film's sole man.
The Beguiled tells the story of a secluded girls' boarding school in Virginia run by the strict Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) three years into the Civil War. With five pre-teen and teenage students, and only one other grown adult, the teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), around, the plantation is in disarray, and the girls are frustrated, bored, and isolated from the outside world. When one of the younger students discovers a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) in the woods, she brings him back to the school to convalesce, much to the chagrin of Ms. Martha. But the Corporal's arrival sends all the women, young and old, into a tizzy. No longer can they concentrate on their basic duties, or act without their hearts a fluttering. Suddenly, their most basic sexual urges have completely taken over their bodies and actions.
One by one, (in wonderful performances, it should be noted), nearly all of the women and young girls become smitten with the Corporal, especially the oldest three. For Martha, McBurney seems to represent her former partner, lost long ago to the war. Washing the Corporal's broken, filthy body with a sponge sends Martha into such a sexual frenzy that she needs to resort to the 19th century equivalent of hosing herself down; repeatedly splashing water on her face from a delicate, porcelain bowl. For Edwina, McBurney represent an escape. Timid and repressed, it's evident that she longs for adventure or excitement, or even just attention. As the secondary adult in Martha's strict household, she's often chastised for simply speaking, and when McBurney professes his phony love, Edwina all but falls to her knees.
Then there's Alicia (Elle Fanning), a young woman in her late teens whose interest in McBurney is purely sexual. She's driven, flirtatious, and since she's the youngest of the three, is of course is the one on whom McBurney's attentions linger the longest.
The drive for McBurney's attention pits the women against one another, in a way that, to me, feels backwards and offensive. Their behavior is hardly representative of how a group of women would react to the sudden appearance of a man. Sure, much of their reactions can be chalked up to the repressed sexuality of the 19th century, and corsets and exposed ankles notwithstanding, their frenzied battle for affection is comical. Yet it's not comical enough. Had the film camped up the entire premise, made McBurney's dog-like intentions more clear and the dramatic "revenge plot twist" a little less necessary, the ladies' swooning might have been more entertaining and not ridiculous. But as it is, Coppola wants us to take these wispy reactions seriously and believe that, as a result of such isolation, the women would resort to their most base carnal desires with nary a thought for the consequences.
In that way, The Beguiled isn't really about exploring gender dynamics at all, but rather gender stereotypes of women out of control. And despite featuring seven women in the cast, the movie actually does very little for female representation, considering that all the characters have the same goal: landing the dude. When your entire cast is vying for the attentions of one man, relying on sexual instinct alone, that's hardly a diverse reflection of women. It makes women at varying stages of life seem as if they're still devoted to the same quest, which is not exactly true of the many ladies I know. And I highly doubt it was true of women during the Civil War, either.
It's not a requirement that films made by female directors with a majority female cast embrace feminist themes, certainly. But for all of Coppola's assertions that she'd rather explore gender dynamics instead of racial ones, that task can't be accomplished when the gender dynamics boil down to the idea that women of all ages simply can't control their carnal desires around a man. It's resorting to the stereotypes of men as dogs and women as cats, willing to claw the others away for a lap of milk. If one of these characters explored repressed female sexuality of the 19th century, it would make more sense, but all of them doing so is just ridiculous. And while it would have been a humorous take if Coppola embraced the camp, as it is now, The Beguiled is too subtle and serious for these stereotypical female reactions to not elicit eye rolls.