What women think: The Beguiled beguiles with sexual politics

By Kim Hughes

The Beguiled is certain to emerge as one of the most hotly debated films of the year. And you can bet the talk will centre on the male/female dynamic at play and what the film is trying to say about it, both through its period lenses and its contemporary telling.

An overheard conversation in the ladies’ room following a press screening offers a clue of how these conversations might go: “Typical. If only he had kept his pecker in his pants!” Ah, to have been a fly on the wall in the men’s room…

A quiet moment in a war of sexual possession in The Beguiled

A quiet moment in a war of sexual possession in The Beguiled

That writer Sofia Coppola won best director at Cannes last spring for her update of the 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood also based on Thomas P. Cullinan's 1966 Southern Gothic novel ramps up the anticipation. That, and Coppola’s track record as a filmmaker of uncommon (some might say simply female) insight into the human condition.

So, what insights do we glean? That depends, of course. Do you believe straight women are inherently competitive around men? Do you believe men are fundamentally unable to control their penises?

The Beguiled both reinforces and upends those positions.

During the American Civil War, a wounded Yankee soldier (Colin Farrell) is discovered in the Virginia forest by a young girl picking wild mushrooms. She brings him back to the all-girl boarding school where she lives with other young women under the care of Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), a tightly wound sorority mother type with billowy threads and an aura of repression you can practically see.

Instantly, the presence of the wounded Yankee disturbs the calm (such as it is) of the household, both because he is the enemy on Southern soil, and because he’s wearing pants. 

That he is charming and very vulnerable allows him to quickly infiltrate the tight circle of women, primarily teacher Edwina and precocious (and smoking hot) teenager Alicia, played, respectively, by Coppola stalwarts Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning.

When the Yankee soldier makes a move on one woman to the apparent exclusion of the other, things go south fast. In the film’s tense final third, viewers must question whether female fury was the catalyst of the soldier’s spectacular misfortune. And if we buy that, were the women acting instinctually or under the stresses of life during wartime?

The Beguiled is beguiling; all softly-filtered lighting and satiny fabrics in a household where the claustrophobia is at once reassuring and unbearable. And questions about gender and piousness (and the proclivities therein) just never get old.

But a declarative statement about intent would have been more satisfying than Coppola’s insistence that her audience come to its own conclusion about just how far women will go to save a life… or ruin one.

The Beguiled. Directed by Sofia Coppola. Starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning. Opens wide June 30.

Kim Hughes

An entertainment/lifestyle writer and editor of an exquisite vintage, Kim has written about film, music, books, food, wine, cosmetics and cars for the Toronto Star, NOW Magazine, Report on Business, Amazon.com, hmv, Salon, Elevate, CBC, Spafax and many other marquee properties. She lives in Toronto and is a proud volunteer with Annex Cat Rescue.