The Beguiled and the Merits of Slower Movies

Hiking has always been something that I really enjoy yet rarely do. I only do it every once in a while because although I like to admire nature, I often feel melancholic once I’m finished. Part of this has to do with the scale and impact of nature versus my own, it’s easy to feel insignificant. This combined feeling of admiration and grief matches the tone of Sofia Coppola’s newest movie The Beguiled. This makes sense because there’s a heavy emphasis on nature and the limited setting gives the film room to explore its characters. The first scene is a long take of sunlight mixed with overgrown foliage as one of the younger girls hums softly and collects mushrooms. At the end of each day we see one of the girls go outside with a telescope to see if there’s anyone on the road, this acts as a marker for passing time as well as an excuse for more shots of the grounds. With the exception of the younger girls, the audience is able to get a good read on the traits of each character pretty quickly. This allows us to feel invested once the tension increases (though not to the amount you might expect, I’ll touch on this later). Overall, the movie is a slow exploration of its setting and the characters within it, something that we don’t see often in large releases today.

Going into the theater I noticed that the audience mostly consisted of older women, something you don’t usually encounter. It was heartening to see that female-led movies do have an audience, even if that audience is an unexpected demographic. I say unexpected because this movie was not marketed as a leisurely period piece; the trailer made it seem as if it was a fast-paced thriller that happened to be set in the Confederate south. The advertising for this movie did not match the pacing or tone of the film itself and I think this is telling. It can be hard to get people to pay attention to a movie that’s not fast-paced and modern, so the advertisers may have felt that the trailers needed to compensate for the lack of these qualities in the actual product. In some ways this insults general audiences by assuming that our attention spans are very short, yet in others it’s accurate. Most popular movies today have some amount of action in them, while in The Beguiled the most action we get is a scene where two of the younger girls tend to the garden. It can be easy to see why marketing it in a traditional way would not have been successful for a general public that is so accustomed to action and high stakes in their movies.

naturehouse
Coppola was especially fond of this shot which was featured many times throughout the film

Something that I want to pay particular attention to is the framing in this movie. There’s not an abundance of props and you really feel the airy open spaces in the house, this is especially evident at night. There are only so many candles that can be lit in a large house but the small number stylizes the shots at night, especially in the dinner scenes and when they pray before bed. The latter are effective in showing the worry of the adults and the boredom of the younger girls. Although the setting is this grand southern mansion, the frame is not cluttered with items that make it seem opulent or inaccessible.

candleexplosion
Candle explosion and cluttered frame in Phantom of the Opera (2004)
dinnershot
Candles are contained there’s a centered, symmetric frame

This is something that I often see in historical movies, the enthusiasm of the filmmaker comes through as the camera focuses on objects that are foreign to us. There is something interesting to examining items that we don’t use anymore, but Coppola doesn’t overwhelm us with this. The women in this film wear corsets but they aren’t moaning about it constantly because they are accepted as a normal part of life. That’s not to say that they weren’t painful or a problem, just that they were part of that period. In some period pieces you can see that the filmmakers think they’re making some feminist statement because the lead has to make comments about how awful the corset is or implies that she’s above it in some way. The ones that come to mind are The Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), Titanic (1997), and Beauty and the Beast (2017). There isn’t a scene involving this in the last film but Emma Watson did refuse to wear a corset. In that case it wasn’t too much of an issue because her character isn’t supposed to be well-off and most poorer women in 18th century France didn’t wear corsets all the time.

 

elizabeth-swann-and-elizabeth-swann-corset-gallery
Guys look I’m a Strong Female Character™

There was some controversy about how Coppola decided to cut a black character who was in the source material (an enslaved maid named Mattie) and change a mixed-race character to a white one. Coppola herself stated that she did not want to include a black character who was enslaved because she did not want young girls to see a black woman depicted that way. The article I linked above notes Coppola’s history of cutting ethnic characters and themes from her movies, but I think this one is especially problematic. If you’re going to do a movie that’s set in the Confederate south, you cannot pick and choose which aspects of history that you want to cover. If you’re doing a period piece that has to do with race and gender then it’s necessary to include them. In some ways I can see why Coppola chose to do this since it centers the focus of the movie, yet the addition of Mattie probably would’ve strengthened the piece. In the novel her character doesn’t fall for the Corporal’s charms and this heightens the tension (which is needed since the second act lags a bit). Coppola is adept at characterization, so if she had kept Mattie in and dealt with her character respectfully then I don’t think it would’ve been a problem. The movie is only an hour and a half as is. We should be uncomfortable with the concept of slavery but not to the extent that we erase it from the historical narratives that contain it. That’s a disservice to those who went through it.

The Beguiled is a breath of fresh air in terms of pacing and female characterization, though the amount of tension is not as high as the filmmakers think. The twist in the third act is not nearly as significant as it should be but the film does make up for this in other ways, namely gorgeous cinematography. This movie makes us ask questions about how we should interpret history (especially fictionalized history) and shows us the merits of slower movies. It’s not going to change the movie industry by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a nice change. What do you think of slower movies? Feel free to let me know in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “The Beguiled and the Merits of Slower Movies

  1. “If you’re going to do a movie that’s set in the Confederate south, you cannot pick and choose which aspects of history that you want to cover.”

    I have to disagree because this implies an ‘obligation’ on the part of the filmmakers to cover all aspects of history. I’m personally ambivalent about Coppola, but in the end we should allow her the artistic license to make whatever film she wants to make. Obviously it’s important that we understand historical fact, but I think it’s more important that we parse historical fact (which we can only interpret and not re-experience) from historical fiction. It’s not a work of fiction’s responsibility to accurately portray reality and I’m sure most reasonable people know that The Beguiled doesn’t.

    “If you’re doing a period piece that has to do with race and gender then it’s necessary to include them.”

    Is the story really about race and gender though? The Beguiled seems to me to be in the long tradition of Southern Gothic fiction, where race and gender are present but not by necessity integral to the genre -which has always been more about murder, religiosity, secrecy, etc. Many reviews extrapolating race and gender in the film just seem forced and unfair to me.

    Like

    1. I see what you’re saying regarding artistic license but at the same time filmmakers are responsible for distributing media that reaches a lot of people, therefore representation is something that they should be aware of when crafting a film. Sure, The Beguiled is historical fiction, but I’m not so sure that it’s beneficial to romanticize the Confederate south when its problematic elements are stripped away. I do understand what you mean by the forced reviews though, going into the movie I didn’t have strong feelings about it either way but after seeing it I felt like the inclusion of the black characters would’ve made it a better movie. Overall I think that sometimes it’s difficult to reconcile artistic license and the power of persuasion that filmmakers have. I also think that Coppola has gotten an unnecessary amount of backlash that a male filmmaker probably wouldn’t have experienced.

      Like

      1. Sure they should be aware of it, but they’re under no *obligation* to do so is all I’m saying. If artists are afraid of offending someone, than their freedom of speech is useless. The film doesn’t romanticize the confederacy. The amount of persuasion that a filmmaker actually has is also subject to speculation since we don’t really have a metric for persuasion/influence/etc.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s