‘The Beguiled’ subverts male gaze through Sofia Coppola’s powerhouse direction

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"The Beguiled" | Focus Features
Grade: 4.0/5.0

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Editor’s Note: The arts and entertainment department is adjusting its grading scale from a letter-grade system to a numeric score out of 5. This change is intended to increase accuracy and consistency between reviews.

Sofia Coppola earned the Best Director Award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for “The Beguiled” — making her one of two women who have received the award (along with Yuliya Solntseva for “Chronicle of Flaming Years”). It’s a win long overdue, and one that adds even more prestige to a filmmaking family that includes one of the greatest directors of all time (Francis Ford Coppola), and by far the greatest yeller of all time (Nicolas Cage).

Above all, though, “The Beguiled” is a true testament to the woman behind the camera — a film with inspired visuals and masterful performances, and which imparts a needed feminist stamp on a story (the 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood, based on Thomas Cullinan’s novel of the same name) originally known for its pulp alone.

Set during the height of the Civil War, the film centers on Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) — the headmistress of an all-women school deep in the South — who takes in and heals injured Union soldier John McBurney (Colin Farrell). Soon, his presence strains the relationship between Martha and the other women, and betrayals loom over simmering sexual tension.

“The Beguiled” dedicates itself to subverting a cinematic male gaze with its every frame. Take the interspersed, detailed shots of Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst), a teacher at the school, surveying the landscape with a telescope. The inserts are irrelevant to the plot, but make it abundantly clear that it is the gaze of the women, not McBurney’s, which has power on the school grounds.

Coppola’s film is, fittingly, one concerned with sight — and it is hands down one of the most visually striking films of the year. “The Beguiled” was shot on 35mm film, allowing cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd’s use of natural lighting to feel as rich and warm as the Southern manor the film is set on. In a film subverting the male gaze, the inherent beauty of the cinematography becomes a paradox to appreciate. The audience becomes McBurney, finding amusement in a world that should have been left alone and unobserved.

Visuals aside, the film benefits from a powerhouse cast. Kidman — who had four projects premiere at Cannes this year — is cool and calculating as the school’s headmistress. When she says “Bring me the anatomy book,” her impeccable, steely delivery makes our stomachs sink in dread of the bloodshed that is being teased.

Likewise, Dunst and Elle Fanning re-team with Coppola (“Marie Antoinette” and “Somewhere,” respectively), delivering standout performances. Both actresses are subtle as they clash over lessons and later, McBurney. Yet their reserve speaks to the relative calm of the school before it is disrupted by McBurney’s destructive presence.

And then there’s McBurney himself, as Farrell steps into Clint Eastwood’s shoes (boots?). Farrell plays the Union soldier with a polite, gentlemanly reserve that jarringly gives way to unhinged mania, a turn that allows Farrell to descend into the most toxic depths of hyper-masculinity. It’s a move that heightens the drama and propels a tense third act.

Still, in recontextualizing the original film and the novel it was based on, Coppola’s film fails to live up to its full potential as a modern adaptation. Most saliently, Coppola excludes two POC characters (an enslaved maid, and Edwina’s background as a woman of mixed race) — a case of whitewashing that undercuts the feminism that the film espouses.

In another of this adaptation’s shortcomings, it never quite embraces the thrills and tension that genre filmmaking allows. By the time blood is finally spilled, the film has more than earned its use of gore, but unfortunately, doesn’t quite capitalize on it. While the bloodshed suggests the high cost of the male gaze, the film supports that suggestion less emphatically than we are led to expect.

Still, “The Beguiled” is an effective and cutting exercise in converting an originally pulpy story into a sleek feminist tale. The male gaze has dominated cinema for as long as cinema has existed, and with this film, Coppola gives a fair, if flawed, warning to those that continue to indulge it.

Harrison Tunggal covers film. Contact him at [email protected].