Good lesbian movies appear so rarely that the lesbian-shaming The Beguiled has been mistaken for the real campy thing.
But way back in 1981, film scholar B. Ruby Rich set some ground rules, describing the classic German film Maedchen in Uniform (1933) as “about sexual repression in the name of social harmony, about the absent patriarchy and its forms of presence, about bonds between women which represent attraction instead of repulsion, and about the release of powers that can accompany the identification of a lesbian sexuality.”
Rich’s description helps expose Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 Clint Eastwood-Don Siegel The Beguiled, which was originally about the Civil War and its dehumanizing effect on male-female relationships.
Now, the story about a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell) who is rescued by a private school of white Southern maidens and its headmistress (Nicole Kidman), has become a queer- and feminist-baiting joke. Millennial reviews praise it as a pro-Hillary fantasy of vengeance against the patriarchy embodied—then castrated—as a villainous white male Yankee horndog.
Sofia pushes all the Progressive buttons—as if pushing a Rebel dildo—but she also reduces American history to Liberal agitprop. At the same time, she pretends Feminist interest in portraying female agency (sexual license as opposed to sexual repression). She timidly hints that some of the schoolhouse women are closeted lesbians: Schoolmarm Kidman shows special interest in Kirsten Dunst as the oldest student; they exchange looks of hot complicity until Dunst’s character develops a yen for eggplant.
Indie director Kelly Reichardt might have depicted all of this more honestly, by showing subtle sorority house sensitivity, as in last year’s all-girl romance Certain Women. But Sofia’s blase approach to drama leaves too many open secrets and hushed questions. The schoolgirls are attracted to Farrell’s manliness (Sofia’s most concentrated images detail Kidman bathing his torso) but, as in all Sofia movies since The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, the storytelling stays remote from sexual intrigue. What’s left is the strong implication that men are dangerous and women need to be defensive against their phallic aggression and masculine sexual threat. Apparently lust is not common ground.
There are all kinds of cultural regression in this remake, starting with Sofia’s reticent Kidman-Dunst sexual tension. Where, after all this time, is Hollywood’s Sapphic equivalent to Brokeback Mountain? Or are Holmby Hills executives too insecure to play out the Rubyfruit Jungle fantasies of wives and mistresses who might be faking orgasm to finance their estates and Rodeo Drive shopping sprees?
Worst of all, Sofia’s offenses in The Beguiled misrepresent American social conflict during the Civil War and today. Sofia completely omits the character of the black maid, originally portrayed in 1971 by Mae Mercer. Mercer, the strong actress and blues singer, helped ground the original The Beguiled in the era’s ongoing racial tension but she has been erased from memory by Sofia and by the politically ignorant who praise any new movie directed by a woman. Sofia’s snub of Mercer is no worse than those Black Lives Matters activists who have complained that the remake indulges white privilege, yet these “woke” activists ignore Sofia’s gay affront.
Their complaints amount to shouting at phantoms because they know nothing about cultural history. Jazz enthusiast Clint Eastwood, who acted opposite Mercer in a memorable confrontation that ‘70s Black Panthers frequently cited, proved more appreciative of Mercer’s talent. (Mercer also produced a 1972 documentary on Angela Davis).
Sofia’s The Beguiled shamelessly demonstrates how far contemporary Feminism has gotten from racial and sexual equality. Its lazy, unclear defense of white female empowerment reveals misandry, the sexually-based hatred of men. The revised plot climaxes with the Farrell character’s symbolic unmanning, but without the sense of two-way menace that Eastwood, Siegel and Mercer made clear as disturbingly human. There’s not a single Sisterhood Is Powerful or woman-on-woman love scene in this “good girls gone bad” fiasco. Should queer moviegoers be so easily Beguiled?