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.
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.
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.
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.