Film & Television

‘The Beguiled’: Taking Southern Hospitality to a New Level

Femmes fatales are nothing new. From vengeful mother Medea (Euripides, 431 BC) to the madly ambitious wife of Macbeth (Shakespeare, 1606 AD), to the more modern anti-heroines of movies like Fatal Attraction (1987), Misery (1990), and Basic Instinct (1992). Even family entertainment giant Disney can’t resist their sirens’ song; the nemeses of most of its Princesses are evil queens, evil fairies, evil stepmothers, and the occasional evil, decidedly female, sea monster.

Whether these women have been wronged or are misunderstood, they make an art form of their wicked ways. And, historically conceived by men, their cruelty is all the more abhorrent because it belies the natural grace of their gender.

In The Beguiled, the new film written and directed by Sofia Coppola, wounded union soldier John McBurney finds barrels of feminine grace when he stumbles into the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies. It’s midway through the Civil War, and the finishing school is nearly abandoned with just a handful of students, a teacher, and the headmistress left. The war wages outside, but within the school’s grounds, genteel manners are encouraged; French and music lessons continue; and the group gathers for bible study and prayer every evening. When their insular world is disrupted, the women (and girls — the youngest student is 11) act first out of Christian charity, nursing the soldier with the intent that he’ll be turned over to the Confederate army once he’s healthy enough to survive prison. Soon, however, they are seduced in various ways by their charming, disarming guest. Having been starved of male companionship for the past three years, they compete for his attention, while he pursues his own agenda, which includes sitting out the rest of the war in this perfectly pleasant setting. Rivalries come to a head, and after a terrible accident, fatal decisions are made out of a will to survive, a desire for vengeance, or a heady mixture of both.

Coppola’s movie is based on the 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan. The book was pulpy and sensational, and the 1971 film version, starring Geraldine Page and Clint Eastwood, and directed by Don Siegel, followed suit. Watching it today, I’m struck by how quickly the women became horror movie stereotypes, and how incongruous the 1970s hairstyles were on antebellum belles. Although there were more women than men in the cast, Siegel’s film had definite roots in male fantasy. Manipulative and dishonest, his McBurney shows his true, unsavory character early on. He’s rescued by a 12-year old student and as they hide from the rebels, he asserts that she’s old enough to be kissed and follows through on his observation. Whenever he tells his story (“I’m a Quaker, I didn’t even carry a gun; but I feel guilt about the fate of my comrades”), we see flashbacks that prove each tale untrue (he fought quite viciously and took care of himself first and foremost). Although McBurney’s not an admirable man, the film is quick to turn his would-be victims into unrepentant victimizers. Their symbolic castration of him is depicted with as much horror (which, to be honest, reads like camp nearly 50 years later) as if he were the innocent. The Beguiled of 1961 is a man’s movie. In case, we weren’t sure, the film begins with a long series of sepia toned Civil War battle scenes. When we do meet the women at Farnsworth, they are alien beings, caged and desperate. Their current lives have been determined by the actions of men.

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