The Beguiled: Possibly failing the Bechdel test, and an unique exploration of female desire

Sofia Coppola and the cast of The Beguiled: Credit Universal Pictures

Sofia Coppola and the cast of The Beguiled: Credit Universal Pictures

"Theirs is a household entirely without males, and soon it’s seething with sexual tension as Farrell’s character is lobbed like a hand grenade into their midst."

I’m not sure Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled would pass the Bechdel test ( this is where two or more women are gathered, and discuss something other than a man, usually an indication that a film contains a “three-dimensional’ woman, not a fantasy female.) But who cares? Its contradictions help make it one of the most extraordinary films about women.

A man enters an exclusively female world in the shape of a Union soldier, John McBurney ( Colin Farrell) who is wounded in a battle near Miss Martha’s seminary for Young Ladies. Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) only has a few young ladies left as the Civil War rages, along with schoolteacher Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst.) Theirs is a household entirely without males, and soon it’s seething with sexual tension as Farrell’s character is lobbed like a hand grenade into their midst.

The original novel, The Beguiled, was from the male soldier’s perspective, and a 1971 film was also from the male gaze, but this is from the female – and every woman can see McBurney’s attempts to ingratitate himself, and avoid leaving to return to the war. He flirts with the teenager throwing himself at him (Elle Fanning) tells the pre-pubescent Amy that “she’s his best friend in here,” gravely flatters the virginal Edwina, while desire that’s only half feigned seeps into his respectful tones towards Miss Martha. For once, sex is the man’s best weapon, and he knows it. Which one of these sexually frustrated ladies should he choose? Or will it simply be a ‘service’ to get what he wants? “You’re angry because I didn’t choose to go to your room” he shrieks, as the denouement moves the film into gothic horror.

Coppola fills her films with women – The Bling Ring, The Virgin Suicides, now The Beguiled- and has managed to elude that 'female ensemble' tag due the subtlety of her storytelling,

 

It’s still rare to have so many different female viewpoints within one film, never mind an exploration of the subtle shiftings of female desire. I hope it doesn’t get dubbed a ‘female ensemble’ film, because why do The Magnificent Seven, The Usual Suspects, Reservoir Dogs, The Departed, The Hateful Eight not get called ‘male ensembles?’ Because the ratio is usually skewed that way anyway?

It’s too easy to call something with more than two women in it – Bridesmaids, Pitch Perfect, The Help, Steel Magnolias, 8 Femmes, Nine – a ‘female ensemble’ film as it’s still rare enough that critics can throw it in that particular bucket.

Coppola fills her films with women – The Bling Ring, The Virgin Suicides, now The Beguiled- and has managed to elude that tag due the sublety of her storytelling, and the fluidity of her genres – she also made Somewhere and Lost in Translation in between. But I can only recall one other film where all female attention was focused on the one male character, but so much was revealed about the women instead – that was 8 Femmes, and that man was dead.

Like Tarantino and that master of women, Pedro Almodovar,  Sofia Coppola is ready to take her place as a genre by herself. In some ways The Beguiled is Sofia Coppola’s answer to her friend Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, where one lone female character is treated according to the rules of the male society she is forced to be a prisoner of. In The Beguiled, Colin Farrell will find the rules are no less grisly for being covered in frills.

The Beguiled won the Director’s Prize at the Cannes Film Festival 2017 and is released in the UK on July 14, 2017

Emma Jones