The Feminism of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled

When Clint Eastwood starred in the 1971 Don Siegel drama The Beguiled, it was in the hopes of pushing his image beyond the spaghetti Western antihero or misplaced musical star (yes, we remember Paint Your Wagon). The Beguiled gave Eastwood the opportunity to play a romantic lead, and much of the 90-minute runtime has Eastwood playing Eastwood acting like a wounded soldier whom every lady loses her mind over. Sofia Coppola’s new remake seeks to reshape the film and remove the Eastwood persona, turning the dashing Union soldier into a frightening and all-too-real representative of our times.

Coppola’s version of The Beguiled follows the basic outline of the original. John McBurney is a wounded Union soldier taken in by the ladies of Miss Martha Farnsworth’s (Nicole Kidman) finishing school. As McBurney recuperates, he becomes a source of fascination and lust for the women in different ways, leading to a volatile confrontation.

The distinction between Coppola’s and Siegel’s versions lies with agency and what the shifts in control and power mean for the characters. The overall takeaway from Siegel’s film is that ladies are thirsty for Clint Eastwood and are ultimately driven mad by his unrestrained sexiness. Eastwood’s smooth talk works on each of the women he meets, and he faces little to no resistance from them. They’re all enchanted by his good looks, and when the tables turn it’s the result of feminine jealousy and revenge. The females’ power for Siegel lies in their penchant for vengeance, yet the control remains firmly male. It isn’t that the women are dominant; they’ve been seduced and are the ultimate women scorned.

Coppola’s rendition creates a genuine fluctuation in dominance between McBurney (here played by Colin Farrell) and the women of Miss Martha’s. The women are in control of McBurney’s fate from the moment they discover him, threatening to turn him over to the Confederates at any minute. It’s only through their feigned “good Christian charity” that they decide to let him stay, predominantly because the women have seen no one else for years.

McBurney’s arrival doesn’t precipitate the threat of sexual violence, though it opens the door for exploring it. Miss Martha hides the girls so that any soldiers who pass by “avoid temptation,” though her maternal protection of the girls from McBurney in the third act show this to be a false front meant to keep the girls in line. McBurney is put in the liminal position of being an invader and possible restorative to the young girls’ views of men. They call McBurney “dangerous,” a “blue-belly” who’s part of a cabal that “rape every woman they see.” Their trepidation is mixed with attraction, specifically to his newness. They fear men in general, but ensconced in the safety of the school they are allowed to look, and subsequently desire, McBurney of their own free will.

For McBurney, Ms. Martha’s school is a new land of opportunity. He reveals to her that he’s an immigrant who took someone’s place in the war for money. Were he to be sent off with the Confederates he’d be killed. If he returned to his own regiment, he’d most likely be labeled a deserter. He has no home or means of money. His only chance is to manipulate each woman, in the hopes someone will either allow him to stay (Ms. Martha), marry him (Ms. Edwina), or just find him good company (the girls). McBurney puts on a different affectation for each woman, in the hopes of selling himself as what they want. He becomes a playmate and father figure to Amy (Oona Laurence), all “darlin’s” and “m’lady’s”; to Edwina he is a hero ripped from a romance novel. McBurney wrests control of the school by playing up his nice, useful and, ultimately, desirable traits.

Where Eastwood was the attractive and cocky male driven to destruction by an all-consuming female sexuality, Coppola’s McBurney falls into the category of “Nice Guy.” A “nice guy” is a term used to describe a male who comes off as sensitive, vulnerable and otherwise appealing to women in order to secure control in some way, whether sexual or physical. The young women buy into McBurney’s act; Edwina, at one point, points out that he’s a “sensitive person.” Yet his attempts to act as an institutional aggressor are easily identifiable. When he compliments Edwina it’s from an area of dominance, telling her “you don’t know how beautiful you are.” He isn’t as syrupy to Ms. Martha, coming at her from a place of equal respect, but emphasizing her strength and need for a male companion by bringing up the fact she has no lover. As he makes himself useful around the school — tending the garden, itself filled with double entendre — McBurney makes a point of smiling to himself, proud that he’s gotten one over on everyone.

The problem starts when he goes too far in his attempts to dominate. (Spoilers follow.) He finally consummates his newfound status in the house with one of the girls, which ends up putting him in a situation where he loses a limb. An attempt to save his life is perceived by McBurney as a castration. Just as the wandering Confederate soldiers tell Ms. Martha “there’s nothing more startling than a woman with a gun,” the audience sees there’s nothing more frightening to a man than losing his manhood to a woman. McBurney loses his control, and his manhood, manifesting his domination into full-bore aggression. He becomes physically abusive, wields a weapon, and threatens to shoot any of the ladies who try to stop him. This, in spite of his protestations that “I’m not a bad fella.” To McBurney, he just wants to be “welcome” to interact with the women on his terms, stay in the school on his terms, and dominate them in a method that best suits him. When he loses that ability, his nice guy veneer is exposed for the facade it is. He feels he is owed their gratitude for being a nice guy. In his mind the women have driven him to this point and, thus, it is their fault.

McBurney tells Amy he looks birds and “anything that is free,” but he sees this strictly in terms of his own freedom. By permanently removing McBurney from their lives and further isolating themselves, the women are able to reestablish and retain their control. As with many of Sofia Coppola’s films, women can only live freely by removing themselves from a society shaped and dictated by men.

Kristen Lopez lives in Sacramento.

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