And for Coppola, it truly just happens to be: the film refuses the burden of politics, which is to say (in the case of the Civil War, if not in all cases) the burden of history. The Beguiled takes place entirely on the grounds of the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies in Virginia, where a small handful of unclaimed students, the teacher Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and headmistress Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) wait out the war’s end in relative isolation from its primary dramas and protagonists. Cannon fire booms in the distance; the smoke of battle peppers the skyline; and while Confederate soldiers occasionally stop at the school’s gates, only one man has any dialogue of note: Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a recently immigrated Irish mercenary soldier for the Union, found injured in the woods by one of the students and carried back to the school to receive Christian hospitality and medical attention. Conflicting seductions ensue.
As a number of critics have noted, every single character in The Beguiled, speaking or not, is white. The child Amy tells the Corporal in one of the opening lines of dialogue that the slaves have left — she does not say whether they’ve escaped, been emancipated, or were allowed to simply walk off the grounds — an event that never returns to consciousness for the film’s remaining 90 minutes. Coppola has said in interviews that she did not want to treat the subject of slavery lightly, presumably by sprinkling some mute black figures on the landscape. That the South’s peculiar institution might, in fact, have been central to the moral and sexual identity formation of white women does not seem to have occurred to her, or it is at least not the story Coppola wants to tell. Instead, the most vivid and unruly presences haunting the film’s periphery are non-sentient: unswept leaves cover the school’s veranda, vines creep along the upper balcony, weeds threaten the garden (now tended by the students themselves), and giant tree branches are strewn about the yard. In lingering atmospheric shots, the viewer is repeatedly reminded of nature’s slow but untamable encroachment. Likewise, and likely shocking for Coppola fans, the film features almost no soundtrack; with the exception of an occasional ambient mood piece, its main nonverbal sounds are the patter of feet and the chirping of birds.
With Corporal McBurney’s arrival, desire becomes one more intrusion by nature, a final crack in the veneer of Southern gentility occasioned by war. In the visual and narrative logic of The Beguiled, the Civil War is not a culminating crisis of Confederate claims to civility and the slave economy that underwrites them; it instead dissolves those claims by removing their referents. War kills husbands, whisks away suitors, un-enrolls girls from school, and provides cover for enslaved people to quietly disappear. The film’s most gratifyingly excessive scene cartoonishly dramatizes war’s return to primal embodiment: Martha, dressed in a loose white nightgown and splattered in blood, calls for Edwina to “Bring me the anatomy book!” so that she can improvise an amputation. At the Farnsworth Seminary — and, by implication, at civilian institutions across the South — the whole elaborate machinery of genteel social life grinds to a halt. It follows easily enough that political life would stop with it. In such a vision of wartime as limbo, how could the slaves have stayed?
But perhaps, in Coppola’s Confederacy, to refer to the political life of white women is already to misspeak. In Lost in Translation, recent college graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) wanders around contemporary Tokyo, her malaise rendered meaningful by a backdrop of emphatically foreign quirk. When defined against the literally unintelligible energy of Japanese people, it became possible to narrate white ennui as an active ethical commitment, or at least an exceptional obstruction approaching the status of an event — “I’m stuck,” she finally articulates an hour into the film — rather than what we might less generously describe simply as boredom, listlessness, a temperamental aversion to the world beyond oneself. The Civil War, to the extent that it factors at all in the psychosexual lives of the women of The Beguiled, supplies a similar frisson of consequence to a film that shouldn’t need it and doesn’t really want it.
The students slowest to warm to McBurney refer to him as a Yank and a blue belly; when Amy first drags his unconscious body onto the school lawn, another remarks that Union soldiers have been known to rape Southern women. McBurney quickly recognizes these pledges of allegiance to be rhetorical rather than literal: North and South are reduced in this circumscribed world to two more poles of the erotic power play that consumes all who occupy it, functionally analogous to man and woman, ally and enemy, friend and stranger, American and foreigner (McBurney, remember, is Irish). McBurney manipulates these poles interchangeably to cultivate his hosts’ interest and prevent them from turning him over to Confederate authorities: in one of the film’s fleeting attempts at complex characterization, he promises to save the repressed Edwina from the school she hates and flee to the West with her — an appropriately vague destination in which the suspended fantasy of the film might be prolonged indefinitely, where politics, social life, even the problem of slavery need never return.
But McBurney does not have to work very hard to encourage Miss Martha and her charges in their attachments. The film’s sexual entanglements are primarily initiated and choreographed by the women themselves, and McBurney is ultimately thwarted in his efforts to seize the reins. Life before his arrival was, for most of these women, unendurably boring. Because war is something happening out there, having nothing rather than everything to do with the well-to-do white women of the Farnsworth Seminary, they can’t do much about it but wait for it to pass. The French lessons, gardening, and needlework with which they had previously occupied themselves fail to hold their attention with a man in the house, and the Christian precepts with which Miss Martha attempts to discipline their imaginations ring hollow even to her. At long last the war has produced an event that concerns them, and the large house hums with the excitement of having something important to which a lady might apply herself: vying for McBurney’s attention, the women are newly busy dusting off old dresses and broaches, sneaking him gifts and telling him stories, questioning everyone’s motives, and undercutting one another at the dinner table. To Coppola’s credit, her protagonists are often compellingly canny in their machinations. Feminine modesty, naïveté, even authoritative self-possession are roles adopted toward anticipated ends. Seduction is a game that the women play knowingly and at which they, for the most part, excel.
There’s the seed of a real story here. The Beguiled intimately conjures a group of women taught to think of themselves as uniquely prized by powerful men, stranded in a dramatically changing reality over which they have practically no influence, experimenting with their own power in one of the only ways they’re able. (Other experiments in power would have played out, of course, on the absent enslaved.) Despite Coppola’s clear disinterest in the war itself, the gates that mark the border of the school’s closed world remain a live boundary and an object of intermittent anxiety: once McBurney has been absorbed by the world inside, the women work hard to keep out Confederates who might discover and confiscate him, and when his inevitable death is accomplished, his corpse is deposited back outside the grounds. The women refer to the war constantly and are varyingly aware of the threat it poses to their ways of life, both the one lived before the war and the newer rhythms of wartime limbo. But that awareness rarely provides more than conversational filler, requisite particularizing details, or an imported figurative language for more local erotic experience.
We are sure that Coppola has missed an opportunity because hers is not the first version of this story. The excision of black people from Confederate Virginia has struck critics as particularly egregious in this instance because it departs not just from history but from Coppola’s more immediate source material: Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel A Painted Devil and Don Siegel’s 1971 film adaptation both prominently feature black characters. In Cullinan’s text, Edwina is biracial, a detail omitted from both films, but the 1971 remake preserves the central figure of Hallie (Mae Mercer), an enslaved woman at the Farnsworth Seminary and McBurney’s primary caretaker.
The Siegel film is predictably offensive. Hallie is assertive and mouthy but ultimately loyal to the Seminary women, a combination that risks reinforcing apologist beliefs that slavery wasn’t that bad. As Saidiya Hartman has described, sexual violence against enslaved women was enabled by the fiction that the enslaved were bound to their owners not as property but by mutual affection, and that enslaved women manipulated that affection to achieve power and latitude within white households. Siegel’s white women, on the other hand, are explicitly pathological in their sexual appetites. (Miss Martha’s flashbacks reveal an incestuous relationship with her brother that Coppola wisely omits.) Whereas Coppola’s protagonists discerningly navigate the constraints of gender, Siegel’s unthinkingly fall back on charm and petulance as their primary intellectual resources. The older film is also in most ways less interested in ambiguity than Coppola’s adaptation. When Siegel’s McBurney (Clint Eastwood, who else) insists, with the full emotional range of a good-guy porn star, that he joined the army as a medic and only reluctantly participated in the violence of war, we’re shown flashbacks that contradict his account and confirm that he’s a shameless liar, whereas we can never say with certainty what’s emotionally or biographically true of Coppola’s corporal.
But unlike Coppola, Siegel actually seems interested in The Beguiled as a story specific to the Civil War. His film tries, in its sloppy and insufficient way, to capture both the eye that is the Farnsworth Seminary and the storm that rages around it. The opening credits roll over archival photographs of battlefields, but the film’s commitment to its context runs deeper than its wider range of represented detail. The sexual politics of its erotic drama are out of sync with the surrounding politics of war; however, Siegel’s film accounts for this by more adamantly insisting that white men’s identity as men operates distinctly from and may even supersede their respective military allegiances. The Confederate soldiers that visit the school late one night don’t simply threaten to discover and take into custody the now-welcome McBurney, as they do in Coppola’s version, but they are themselves indecent, imposing, and sexually threatening. Later, when Edwina announces her intention to leave the school with McBurney, Martha attempts to dissuade her by invoking the specter of dangerous soldiers beyond the gates, both Union and Confederate.
Siegel’s Edwina answers this threat by boldly declaring that she’s lived with the war for a long time and isn’t afraid of it. Unfortunately, Coppola is, and she responds to this fear by looking away. In her effort to avoid the political pitfalls of the 1971 film, Coppola renounces the obligation to history from which Siegel’s failures result. The most instructive example of this comes, of course, from the enslaved Hallie, whose conversations with McBurney are among the most interesting and disturbing scenes in either film. While still a bedridden, newly conscious stranger, McBurney attempts to win Hallie’s favor by suggesting they have something in common: “We’re both kind of prisoners here, aren’t we?” Hallie concedes that they’re both slaves — McBurney not to the women who hold him captive but to the army for which he’s fighting a war that means nothing to him — but she counters his gambit by reflecting that all white men are the same, North and South, and don’t actually care about black people or their freedom. In a curious turn, McBurney doesn’t dispute this point; instead, he tells her that she ought rather say that all men are the same, period, regardless of color. It’s a flagrantly implausible exchange, surely, but at least it demonstrates interest in the complexity with which race shot through sex, which is always also to say power, then as now. The Beguiled of 1971 tries to test when and how much white supremacy constituted the ground of its characters’ relations and where that ground was shaky or firm, shared or split; The Beguiled of 2017 refuses even to recognize this territory as its own.
Slavery suffused antebellum Southern life and white self-conception, even where enslaved people were not physically present. Its violence could be so extreme that even the most explicit slave narratives are riddled with apologies for failing to articulate it fully, and it has likewise proven uniquely difficult to represent on film. I struggle to think of a single cinematic representation of enslavement that has not occasioned criticism for its approach: every attempt risks coming off as too spectacular or too sanitized, too pretty or too ugly, too victimizing or too heroic. The solution to this problem cannot be simply to dump slavery’s corpse outside the Seminary gates and hope a different film will come along to claim it. In its characteristically oblique way, The Beguiled teaches the lesson it tries to deny: that artificial boundaries are hard to erect and impossible to maintain; that assurances of their coherence can as easily stoke anxieties as allay them; that despite one’s best efforts to lock them out, the vines will creep and strangers come knocking.