Introducing a foreign element into a cloistered group of uniform elements is a well worn formula for drama and comedy. In Alien 3, an all men’s prison where isolation and religious fervor have kept the peace for a group of troubled violent criminals forced into chastity. That peace is broken by the introduction of a woman, a sexual object of desire (regardless of how masculine or asexual she codifies herself), and suddenly all the criminals are on high alert trying to keep their own urges down.
In a way, Alien 3 was a gender flipped sci-fi/horror version of The Beguiled, a southern gothic drama where a man is dropped into a cloistered group of privileged white girls and women who are trying to survive in the midst of the civil war which draws ever closer. Set three years into the civil war, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) is trying to maintain a school for privileged white girls in Virginia, a border state and one of the last to secede, as the war closes in. The girls are taught southern manners, subservience, and elite knowledge (such as playing piano or speaking french) in order to be well rounded citizens of the upper class. Their lifestyle of chaste civility is interrupted when a student happens upon an injured union soldier in the woods and brings him home to heal.
Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is an Irishman who is only a Union soldier after having taken a bunch of money to take somebody else’s place. Despite his lack of devotion, he’s still an enemy in a confederate household, and he’s still a man in a school for girls. McBurney is forbidden fruit for these women, and he plays a subtle game of enticing ALL of them, from the youngest girl to the headmistress Miss Martha, to play his game of seduction. For their part, these women, save Miss Martha, respond accordingly and turn into a factory of lust, desiring what they’ve been denied for so long. What first plays out as a playful snarky game of backbiting and competition takes a dark turn when their suitor finally chooses one for his mate.
Sofia Coppola shifts the focus of the story from John McBurney, who spends the first half of the movie mostly locked up in the music room to heal from his various wounds, to the women who are trapped with him. Miss Martha knows what a poisonous element having a man, especially a Colin Farrell, is going to be in a group of teenage girls and women. And yet, she can’t turn him away because he’s both a man (women were meant to be subservient to men’s wishes) and an injured soul. The girls all compete with each other over his affection, right down to fighting about ownership over the apple pie he likes so much.
In the fashion of this year’s white feminist movies, the man turns into the easily targeted Good Guy™ who, rather than being an innocent pacifist with lustful needs, actually turns out to be a violent controlling fascist creep who can’t keep from lashing out when he doesn’t get what he wants. He becomes a symbol of all toxic masculinity, despite everything that happens in the movie. Who cares that he was preyed upon as much as he was doing the preying? Who cares that a leg was amputated due to jealous rage? He is the foreign element to the pack of women and he’s the poison that needs to be eradicated from the group.
In another fashion, this movie is about the toxicity of The Gaze. In The Beguiled, Sofia turns the camera around and McBurney becomes the object of the female gaze, where all the women are steadily undressing him with their eyes (including one bodice ripping scene, there is hardly any nudity in this oversexed drama). There’s a fear of intimacy and a distaste for lust and sex that overshadows The Beguiled in all its sexless lust. For a subject so fraught with dirty guilty eroticism, Sofia Coppola strives to make this as chaste as the girls are supposed to be.
To achieve a stately baroque style, Sofia borrows heavily from Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon with rooms seemingly lit only by candlelight and a dull grey or earthy color palette as drained of color as the characters are. But she cuts that stateliness with a heavy-handed editing style reminiscent of MTV, or at least Hitchcock. Her editing is to sustain the idea that each character is isolated through their use of the gaze, and it is their gazing that ultimately is the story’s undoing. Unfortunately, the two styles – a painterly style cut to ribbons through modern editing – clash with a conflict of purpose; much like the clash of the union and the confederacy or of a virile man in a pack of hormonal women.
Sofia Coppola comes from a wealthy, privileged, and protected background, and makes films that simultaneously embrace and criticize that status; the women of The Beguiled are neither heroines nor innocents. But, her criticism of her status never extends to how she nor her characters interact with the world around them. Her erasure of characters of color – in the original novel, the Mississippi school had a black maid character, and Miss Edwina was a half-black woman – is but one element of her privilege as a wealthy white celebrity that remains unexamined by her own movies. Sofia doesn’t know how to deal with people outside of her limited circle, nor does she make an effort to try (The Bling Ring also eliminated a Mexican girl from the original group), and this is a significant limitation of her films. She cannot reach beyond her privilege nor her whiteness to examine how her characters fit into a larger context. The encroaching civil war of The Beguiled hints at a larger context that is utterly decimated by her desire to make another movie exclusively about sheltered white girls who don’t know their larger place in the world.
Which brings us back to Alien 3, in which a multicultural community of sheltered men have been removed from their natural environment and are forced to learn and obey a strict set of laws to create a facsimile of polite society where the men can either re-learn their position in society as obedient citizens or be at peace with the idea that they have been outcast from mainstream society. Much like the girls school, the prison had achieved a sort of stasis before the female and the alien are reintroduced to the prison. The peace is broken as the prisoners pursue Ripley and the alien pursues the prisoners in a psychosexual yin-yang (remember, Alien was originally about the spectre of male rape). As the film continues, Ripley and the alien are drawn ever closer together in their usual games of cat and mouse, ultimately entangling in a singularity as they fall to their doom. The woman and the predator are one. In both Alien 3 and The Beguiled, the films are asking who is the true predator: the sheltered group or the new element(s)?
Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh on The Beguiled, which is quite a serviceable and stylish bodice ripping potboiler. Sure, the acting is a little stagy and the direction a little stiff and the screenplay a little too cautious, but its still an enjoyable lark with good cinematography (in a claustrophobic 1.66:1 aspect ratio). It just doesn’t feel like the work of a confident and experienced filmmaker with several highly-adored classics under her belt. The Beguiled feels like an enjoyable second feature by a student showing promise by feeling their way around somebody else’s style. I wish I liked this more, but there’s too many problems to ignore.