Where Siegel goes sleazy and conflictual, Coppola goes subtle and sympathetic. Her direction (which won her the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival, making her only the second woman to do so) zeroes in on two main themes – girlhood and nature.
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The most shocking moment of Don Siegel’s 1971 psychosexual horror film The Beguiled is, surprisingly, long before we see the film’s plot unfold. When a young girl named Amy finds the wounded Union soldier John McBurney in the woods, she decides to help him to safety. When the two stop to rest, McBurney – played by the hypermasculine Clint Eastwood – asks Amy how old she is. She claims to be twelve (though she looks younger), and McBurney responds by saying that she is “old enough for a kiss,” before leaning in for an elongated mouth-to-mouth affair with the child. This moment, as unwarranted as it may seem, is layered with purpose; nearby, Confederate troops are passing, and McBurney uses this pedophilic action in order to quiet Amy and save himself, qualifying him as an opportunistic predator. However, it also serves as our first indicator that McBurney is predatory not only toward women, but toward underage girls as well; the next character that he’ll act upon in the film will only be sixteen. In a film involving sexual horror, dismemberment, and poison, this nonetheless remains the most disgusting moment, and one that would also stand out as symbolic of the biggest difference between this version and others.
The Beguiled, as a general narrative, has quietly (and somewhat surprisingly) stood the test of cinematic time; published as a novel in 1966, adapted into a feature film in 1971, and remade in 2017, it’s clear that there’s something intriguing happening narratively for a non-franchised property so obscure and apparently outdated to be reconsidered so carefully and repeatedly over the past fifty years. It really makes sense, though, as everything about the synopsis is provocative in one way or another; three years into the American Civil War, a group of seven women and girls residing at a girls’ school in the Confederate south come across a wounded Union soldier in the woods. Upon taking him in, the story begins to address the conflict, repression, and predatoriness that pervades this new mas-fem environment; qualifiers that didn’t exist until the soldier invaded the previously feminine space. War, sex (albeit criminal), violence, suspense . . . there isn’t much here that doesn’t scream “Hollywood.”
However, what’s not often considered (despite its initial persistence) is the importance of the natural environment surrounding the antebellum mansion that houses Martha Farnsworth’s girls’ school, nor has there been a focus on how that environment is so heavily studied, manipulated, and depended on not only by the characters, but by the artists rendering their world. The state of nature and its very contents bookend the story itself, but also foreshadow and reveal to us underlying thematic signs while also symbolically battling and deconstructing the entrapment that occurs on the page and the screen. Even Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel (originally titled A Painted Devil) begins with a focus on the pastoral element of the horror tale that would follow, spoken by the narrative’s stand-in for Mother Nature herself. “I found him in the woods,” recounts 12-year-old Amy, who we begin the story with (in all three versions) as she’s exploring the woods and gathering for both a personal collection and the kitchen back at the school. Most pertinent to this moment is the fact that she’s gathering mushrooms just before she finds McBurney; in effect, she returns to the school with the mushrooms and the soldier, her two findings that become central to both the narrative and its explorations.
But first, we have to address the fact that when multiple versions of the same narrative arise, the most pressing need becomes to compare and contrast the separate versions of the text to mine each one thematically, see just what each author is up to, and choose which one is most effective. This property (all three versions of it) is a fascinating one to dissect, as we have to do so not doubly but triply, and because we see a major shift with each reimagining. The original 1966 text, Cullinan’s long, slow-burn Southern Gothic, shifts in format and in tone from novel to film with Don Siegel’s 1971 psychosexual horror. Though it wouldn’t be until over forty years later that it was readapted, we’d see another shift that was also twofold; this time, the 2017 adaptation was in the hands of a woman, filmmaker Sofia Coppola, and the tonal focus matched the novel while mining for a new feminine touch.
This really shouldn’t come as a surprise for anyone familiar with Coppola’s work; since her 2000 debut The Virgin Suicides (itself an adaptation of an older novel), her mapping of the trials, triumphs, tribulations, and complications inherent to both girlhood and womanhood has been a long-term focus unmatched (aside from newcomer Greta Gerwig) by any one filmmaker. In fact, The Beguiled doesn’t even serve as the first period piece she’s used to tackle the subject; 2006’s Marie Antoinette – an ultramodern biopic about the notable French queen – remains one of her most polarizing works to this day for that very reason; to navigate this particular life through the lens of gender was new to all and confounding to some. So would be the case with her writing and directing The Beguiled, a film that was as intriguing as it was head-scratching in theory. To remake something so obscure and so seemingly out of her wheelhouse left people curious, if not skeptical.
The property she’d be remaking both fit and didn’t fit; the novel itself is open to interpretation and interpolation, as we see with the original film adaptation, directed by Don Siegel and written by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp. Siegel (a prolific and scattershot, albeit impressive filmmaker) and his team focus the film on the combating nature of Clint Eastwood’s McBurney and Geraldine Page’s Martha Farnsworth, zooming in mostly on the psychosexual nature of McBurney’s entrapment. Siegel puts these two at odds, qualifying them as protagonist and antagonist without necessarily revealing which is which. This ambiguity would ring true if it weren’t for the recurring image of a crow that Amy has caught that she keeps tied to the balcony, and if the connection couldn’t be more obvious the crow also has an injured limb, a mangled wing to match McBurney’s shot-up leg. The bird would even suffer the same fate that McBurney does by the end of the film, and it would appear that Siegel’s intentions were to situate McBurney as a victim – if not an unsympathetic one – that fell prey to a group of women whose situations were just as unfair as his own. This, along with multiple outlandish sexual elements to be discussed (including but not limited to Martha Farnsworth’s incestuous relationship with her late brother), transforms Cullinan’s Southern Gothic into a somewhat goofy sexual horror show, tonally inconsistent with both its source material and its successor. Where Siegel goes sleazy and conflictual, Coppola goes subtle and sympathetic. Her direction (which won her the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival, making her only the second woman to do so) zeroes in on two main themes – girlhood and nature.
The focus on girlhood really doesn’t beg much explanation; as there is only one male in a house that was previously without males (by design, mind you, as it is a girls’ school), it becomes clear that Coppola sees the space as a feminine one that has been intruded upon by the male presence, gaze, and touch. Narratively, this is an idea that has been explored as early as early modern writer Margaret Cavendish’s 1688 play The Convent of Pleasure, a closet drama in which a group of women decide to form a community in which none of them marry and they disallow the presence of men. Coppola doesn’t exactly steal this narrative as much as she completely turns it on its head; whereas Cavendish’s location is pastoral and uses this natural location as a place for the characters to thrive, Coppola presents it as an opportunity for the characters to thrive but one that they ultimately neglect. All of the characters but Amy – who, again, is nature’s advocate and partner – retreat to the old antebellum mansion for safety from the outside world, a danger that is consistently constructed and reinforced by Martha Farnsworth. The only time the girls spend outside is working for food and water or keeping watch from the widow’s peak of the house; even these small releases take place within the gates of the mansion’s grounds, a space that no character besides Amy dares to leave until the film’s climax. Even Amy is reprimanded for taking the trip that brings McBurney back to the house; as we’ll see by the end of the film, a nearly identical trip will also save the women and return their space back to a feminine one.
Coppola’s focus on nature is also a visual one, though. In his adaptation, Siegel shoots and blocks the action of the film as either inside or outside, creating an overly simple binary that refuses the natural angle as much as it ignores it entirely. However, in her compositions, Coppola embraces this binary and highlights it as one in which one can be positioned over the other; the cinematography often employs shots in which half of the screen is taken up by the house and the other half by nature, most often represented by looming trees with lazing Spanish moss through which the sun shines. The establishing shots and coverage never linger inside the house or on the outside of the house without some sort of natural element making its way into the shot; in other words, even the eye of the camera, the cinematographer, the director herself has to take a moment to admire the narrative’s surroundings. This isn’t always due to outright awe, though; Coppola seems more interested in establishing the house itself as a trap from the freedom that nature provides, a trap that lands the women in hot water as quickly as the masculine intrusion does.
In The Convent of Pleasure, Cavendish proves that the masculine intrusion, as dangerous, predatory, and problematic as it may be, isn’t a death sentence for the feminine space, and Coppola joins this conversation (knowingly or not) by providing the women with the same situation; however, since the natural space that surrounds them is being scorned instead of embraced, McBurney’s predatory presence quickly gains the upper hand. Before this opportunity presents itself, though, we see moments that point toward and foreshadow the moral makeup of each character using the pastoral setting as a marker. In addition to Amy’s positioning as both partner to nature and eventual hero of the story, we see McBurney working the land after his leg has healed up and he’s been given a crutch. Whereas the younger girls often use their time outside to play amongst their work – the most prominent moment being one in which two younger characters splash one another with the water that they’ve been sent to fetch – we see that all that McBurney does is destructive. The only work that we see him doing is cutting the grass violently, ripping up weeds and flowers with his bare hands, and cutting branches away from the trees. He uses this work to advocate for a permanent spot as the school’s gardener, and this parallels perfectly with his moral identity. Just as he plans to assume a positive identity (gardener) in order to carry out negative actions (tearing the land apart), his true intentions at the school are to form a spot for himself that is positive in name (worker) though his intentions are actually negative (predator). This notion is echoed with the casting of Colin Farrell as McBurney, a movement from the slightly wooden and overly masculine (Eastwood) to the charming and resoundingly calm. Where Eastwood is stark and stirs trepidation in the audience, Farrell is quiet and friendly, especially to Amy (who he never treats romantically). Farrell’s very casting reflects the veiled nature of Coppola’s version of the character. Evil lurks under his duplicitous physicality, and in fact, we see this realized within the next thirty minutes of the film.
After the women have warmed up to him, an opportunity for McBurney to choose between three of them to sleep with one night after dinner – the authoritative Martha Farnsworth, the calm Edwina Morrow, or the provocative Alicia – he quickly decides on the third. This choice is not without its significance; in addition to Alicia’s flirtatiousness, she also serves as an in-between character regarding her relationship with nature. When we see her working outside, she is not destroying the earth nor is she nurturing it; as she reluctantly takes a hoe to the garden, she is being destructive for the sake of being productive. However, she loudly voices her displeasure to the younger character that she is working with, yearning to be inside again. Therefore, she exists in-between the other girls and McBurney, and his choice to sleep with her serves as a predatory action regarding both age difference and opportunity to draw her toward destruction. When he is discovered in the act by Edwina, she accidentally pushes him down the stairs, badly breaking his injured leg. Upon uncovering the extent of the injury, Martha promptly amputates the leg with a hacksaw from the school’s work shed. As soon as McBurney wakes up and discovers this fact, he becomes violent to the point of being over-the-top and practically unbelievable; he’s suddenly incredibly out of place in such a subtle narrative and shocking in the evil permeating from his soft appearance. This is because his predatory nature has been checked, and he no longer holds the power he believed that he had over the women. His leg becomes a phallic stand-in that he quickly replaces with Martha Farnsworth’s pistol; the phallic nature of each tool solidifies McBurney’s maleness as predatory, and when the women are faced with this fact, they turn to Amy and the pastoral setting to be their savior.
Recalling McBurney’s fondness for the mushrooms that she picked near the beginning of the film (as well as the fact that they had to double-check them for being poisonous), Amy plans to go out and find some that will rid them of the present danger. They use nature’s gifts and pose as parts of a stereotypical feminine event, a dinner just for McBurney with one of his favorite foods. Just before this dinner but after McBurney’s outburst, Edwina (who has been played more reservedly considerate than quiet by Coppola regular Kirsten Dunst) continues to pursue the squandered romance from before the incident, one that was more interested in partnership than sexuality. McBurney accepts and the two have sex (initiated by Edwina). While Siegel’s version of the film has the two announce at dinner that they’ll be running away together – situating Edwina as foolish and outside the loop regarding the poisonous mushrooms – Coppola’s version has her reserve serve as a cool understanding of the plan. In sleeping with McBurney, she gives him what he has been craving the entire time (capturing of prey) while also serving as his equalizer. He hopes for his association with Edwina to register him with the women as calm and safe again, but when she is told by a younger character that she “doesn’t like mushrooms,” at the dinner table, we see that Coppola has registered her as a sharp and vital component of their escape plan. After eating the mushrooms (which constricts his respiratory system), McBurney is finally disposed of; he succumbs not only to the cleverness of the women, but his own ignorance about the effectiveness of the nature outside the mansion’s gates.
The women have killed and discarded the masculine intrusion practically free of any sort of violence; to ignore and restrict nature is only without consequence until it comes time to rely on it. That’s what makes this overly simple defense so satisfying but the ending of the film so horrifying. The women sew McBurney into a body bag and leave him outside of the gate for a Confederate patrol to collect, but Siegel’s final shot foregrounds the dead and restricted crow, tied by its leg to the balcony’s railing, to the women taking McBurney out to be buried, situating McBurney as something of a victim who has been ensnared and processed. However, Coppola’s final shot captures McBurney outside of the gate with the women all waiting on the porch to see him carried off; though the women have used nature to free themselves from one masculine trap, they’re still fearful of it as a space thanks to Martha Farnsworth’s restriction. Martha’s boundaries put up between both the girls and nature as well as the girls and masculine presences serve as something of an equation that is both true and false; that the entrapment is not singular, but problematically encompassing, true of predatory and toxic masculinity, but not of nature. This is a disconnect that only Coppola could illustrate, and that makes her decision to remake the film as vital and obvious now as it was initially confounding.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the films discussed.