Erica Barker and Efe Birkan
Overview:Our source is The Beguiled, which is a 2017 film adaption of Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel, A Painted Devil (Atad). The film is directed by Sofia Coppola, an American screenwriter, director, producer and former actress (“Sofia Coppola”), and it features Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning (“The Beguiled (2017)”). In the film, a young girl finds John McBurney, an injured Union soldier, in a forested area near her school, and upon bringing him to her headmaster’s school for girls, the school girls and their instructors provide aid and monitor his recovery. During this process, tensions arise between the all-female household due to sexual desire, conflicting ideology, and fear, which subsequently affects the treatment of the enemy soldier. When the school teacher, who is infatuated with John, encounters his sexual relationship with one of the students, she pushes him down the steps, resulting in a supposed necessary amputation of his leg. However, McBurney believes that the amputation was purposeful and unnecessary, resulting in his threats of gun violence as a means of obtaining control. Although he was not dangerous in the beginning, he becomes a threat to the women following their actions, and his life ends as a result of poison.
Historical and Cultural Context:
The Beguiled depicts the era during the Civil War, following the emancipation of slaves, and as a result, the director excludes slaves from the narrative and incorporates ideological tensions among the characters. Slavery is introduced once in the beginning of the film as the headmistress briefly mentions with little voice fluctuation and no emotion that “‘the slaves left’” (Atad). Thus, despite the prevalence of slavery’s effects during the time period of the film, the institution is avoided as a topic of discussion. However, there are inferred conflicts pertaining to ideology in the film, as the women treat the injured soldier, John McBurney, as the enemy due to his role as a Union soldier fighting for the removal of the establishment of slavery, indicating a clear contrast of opinion. The school instructor further supports the contrast of ideologies by providing a subtle indication of dissent from the Southern ideology, as her one wish is “to be taken far away from here” (Coppola). This statement, while ambiguous in regard to the specificity of ‘here,’ implies discomfort with the Southern lifestyle and the slavery associated with it.
Moreover, Coppola’s erasure of slavery in the film appears inappropriate due to the wartime setting and its release date in the current year of 2017 (“The Beguiled (2017)”). This date allows for the film to serve as a reflection of the current racial situation in the United States. Sofia Coppola presents a film that dissociates itself from slavery despite the time period in which it is set, and thus portrays the lack of realization among many Americans of the continued racism and tension in the nation today. Similarly, while slavery is illegal in the United States, Dr. John DeGarmo investigates the idea of continued slavery through human trafficking in “Modern Day Slavery DOES Exist in America: How Our Children Are Victims Today.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation further recognizes the connection between slavery and human trafficking by reporting that “it’s sad but true: here in this country, people are being bought, sold, and smuggled like modern-day slaves” (Haltiwanger). This variation of slavery connects to the film predominantly within the argument against the director’s decision to exclude slavery, as she erases an institution with widespread impacts on humanity. Coppola’s deletion of slavery ignores the relevance of slavery in the context of the film and to current society by way of human trafficking, and her work subsequently invites criticism pertaining to her apparent lack of social awareness. While Coppola has stated that she did not intend to diminish slavery’s significance in the film in Guy Lodge’s “Sofia Coppola: ‘I Never Felt I Had to Fit into the Majority View,’” the audience is misled regarding slavery’s influence on the United States. When Coppola ignores this defining feature of history, particularly in reference to the Civil War, there is an assumption of masking the extent to which stripping one of his freedom and rights is an issue. In general, The Beguiled eliminates the details of slavery despite its connections to the modern-day United States in respect to racist ideology and human trafficking.
Themes and Style:
Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled provides an unique perspective regarding the position of women during the era following emancipation and their current role in society, and while the director introduces a film within the time period of the Civil War, the lack of slaves and single reference to slavery within the film depict the societal and racial situation in both the past and present. Coppola’s work accentuates a skewed understanding of the societal structure of the United States throughout history, and the film indicates the lack of a public will to discuss and understand difficult topics in history and society today. Thus, Coppola unintentionally indicates the aversion of discussing race on a public platform, as the idea of race is misrepresented in the film as insignificant despite its clear connection to society.
The film centers upon the theme of situations changing people and controlling their subsequent actions, and this theme is complemented by the extensive use of symbolism, particularly in regard to John McBurney’s loss of freedom through his leg amputation. By using the ideas “of psychoanalytic film criticism” and its “extremely complex… history,” one can visualize the presence of slavery through John McBurney despite Coppola’s intended erasure of the institution in the film (Creed). Thus, although the director attempts to remove slavery from the narrative, it is present through a psychoanalytic lense. In this case, McBurney encapsulates the position of each slave during the respective era, as his liberty is stripped by way of his ability to walk.
It is this lack of freedom that promotes an emotional outburst that defines McBurney’s final character, as his theft of the household gun represents his reclamation of power lost. By subsequently emphasizing the devastation of his character through proclamations including, “I’d rather be dead,” and “I’m not even a man anymore,” Coppola presents internal despair as a guiding force behind the formation of danger and desperation (Coppola). Thus, McBurney’s captivity and actions encompass the formation of slave rebellions, as circumstances and maltreatment directly contribute to emotional buildup. This emotional and physical mistreatment was legalized through the enactment of slave codes, which “defined slaves as property,” and culminated in dangerous attempts at escaping such laws (“Slave Code for the District of Columbia”). This idea is summarized through McBurney’s exclamation of “[having] enough of [the women’s] devilment,” as the soldier experiences turmoil that corrupted his ability to maintain composure and to accept his situation (Coppola). Similarly, upon McBurney’s threat of violence against the female cast, the headmistress allows for him to leave the school, to which he responds, “Oh I can leave now? Just without my leg!” (Coppola). This biting response further connects to abolition, as the Emancipation Proclamation granted a freedom overwhelmed with trauma that limited slaves’ ability to live as normal American citizens. McBurney’s leg thus symbolizes the piece of each former slave that remained within the institution following liberty, as slaves entered freedom with the scars of their former lives.
This idea is complemented by the disparity of color in the setting and character wardrobe, as the somber and dark atmosphere contrasts the light colors in the characters’ dress. The director appears to emphasize the subtlety of this difference in order to promote the female empowerment that resonates throughout the film, particularly in regard to the female cast’s manipulative control of McBurney. Coppola references this female focus by explaining her intention of depicting “‘how [southern women] change when the men go away,’” as each woman emerges from the darkness of the era to represent the changes to women’s roles during the Civil War (Lodge). This idea is subsequently promoted by J. Matthew Ward in “‘Her Own Sense of Right’: Civil War Rhetoric and Southern Women,” as he explores ideas of self expression in his emphasis on the increase of female power during this period. He thus summarizes the notion that “[southern women] elicited new, public, vocal identities,” which is depicted in The Beguiled by way of wardrobe (Ward).
Such symbolism and female empowerment allows for the director to draw connection between the female cast’s treatment of the Union soldier and the institution of slavery, and Coppola seemingly intends to portray the increasing authority of women during this era. The time period of the Civil War, character conflict, inferred ideology, and the lack of slaves further accentuate the role of women in the Civil War, as the director presents a newfound independence and power parallel with that of former slave owners. The predominant conflict in the film arises between the school teacher, Edwina, and the headmistress, Martha, due to internal ideologies regarding the political culture of the United States, which are presented in Edwina’s final defiance of the southern stereotype. In a dinner scene, Edwina becomes isolated from her southern counterparts through the exposure of her shoulders, to which Martha clarifies that “Miss Edwina is accustomed to a type of society with different views” (Coppola). This comment indicates a contrast in ideology, in which Edwina serves to contradict the conservatism of southern society. Following this early criticism for her scandalous dress, Edwina defies the headmistress in the final moments of the film by wearing a dress more revealing than that for which she is originally chastised. This situation reflects Edwina’s denouncement of the southern ideology, particularly in regard to societal norms and political belief, as she outwardly defies the women responsible for stripping McBurney of his mobility and subsequent freedom. Coppola thus uses Edwina to defy the “‘exaggerated version of all the ways women were traditionally raised there just to be lovely’” (Lodge). Therefore, ideological conflict is masked by seemingly trivial notions of acceptable dress, and by challenging southern notions of the period, Edwina’s character encapsulates the newfound voice and power of women.
The predominant controversy surrounding The Beguiled is the lack of African American characters in a film adapted from a novel with a biracial character and set in the Civil War. Sofia Coppola acknowledges the controversial nature of her film in “Sofia Coppola: ‘I Never Felt I Had to Fit into the Majority View’” by Guy Lodge and excuses herself on the basis of avoiding the misrepresentation of an African American character in the film. According to Coppola, she specifically developed the film without intentions of promoting feminism or omitting the significance of race in the set time period (Lodge). Thus, despite overlooking the societal impact that her film would have by way of female empowerment and racially-based controversy, the director unintentionally created a topic for discussion and varied interpretation. However, such a lack of recognition of the historical and current significance within the Civil War era produces further controversy. For example, in “Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled Whitewashes the Civil War–Era South. That’s Hardly a Surprise,” the film critic Corey Atad pinpoints her historical concentration on the privileged and uses comparisons to movies set in similar time periods in order to criticize the exclusion of slavery from a film supposedly set in the period of abolition. By including the line, “‘the slaves left’” from the film, Atad further accentuates the director’s misrepresentation of race and historical fact, as Coppola summarizes the slavery that helped to determine the course of American history as a seemingly insignificant concept within the work (Atad).
A.O. Scott expands on this criticism in “Review: ‘The Beguiled,’ Sofia Coppola’s Civil War Cocoon,” as he critiques the limited focus on societal structure guiding life in the set era. The author’s reference to the film as a “fairytale” further suggests the extent to which The Beguiled deviates from history, as the lack of slavery context indicates a setting separated from significant aspects of its time period (Scott). Similarly, the film maintains an historical atmosphere, which John E. O’Connor’s regards as significant in explaining historical concepts to a broad audience in an enticing manner in “History in Images/Images in History: Reflections on the Importance of Film and Television Study for an Understanding of the Past.” However, by excluding slaves from the film, Coppola misconstrues O’Connor’s argument and misrepresents history. The film thus remains a controversy in which critics agree that Coppola’s aversion of race limits the accuracy in depicting slavery’s influence on history, particularly during the time period of the Civil War.
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Keywords: The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola, Drama, Film, Civil War, Relationships, Female, Isolation, Power