Alison Willmore

Slavery Exists In “The Beguiled,” Whether Sofia Coppola Depicts It Or Not


Ben Rothstein / Focus Features

Alicia (Elle Fanning), Martha (Nicole Kidman), Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), Jane (Angourie Rice), Amy (Oona Laurence), Emily (Emma Howard), and Marie (Addison Riecke) in The Beguiled.

The Southern belles of Sofia Coppola’s half-brilliant, half-infuriating The Beguiled have a tendency to fall into elegant tableaux, as if posing for some 1861 version of a Vanity Fair Hollywood issue that’s even less diverse than usual. When they gather in the parlor by candlelight for nightly prayer, they look like they’re restaging a painting. When they cluster around a piano to provide musical entertainment for John McBurney (Colin Farrell), the wounded Union soldier who simultaneously becomes their prisoner/gentleman caller, they arrange themselves in postures that look carefully rehearsed, long skirts draping elegantly, even the brunettes giving off an aura of willowy blondeness.

Like the Lisbon sisters in Coppola’s 1999 directorial debut The Virgin Suicides, who had a similar tendency to meld into one dreamy object in the eyes of observers, the characters in the moodily subdued The Beguiled accrue a kind of power when appearing as a collection — it lends them mystique, and can make them seem like more than the sum of their independent parts. All it costs is the sting of surrendering their identities as individuals. But as individuals, they are two adults and five girls with nowhere else to go, the remaining population of the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies in Virginia three years into the Civil War.


Ben Rothstein / Focus Features

Martha (Kidman) at the gates of the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies.

It’s an institution whose fripperies look frivolous and a little foolish with guns rumbling on battlefields nearby. The school’s headmistress, Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), and teacher, Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst), oversee and live alongside the last few students: coquettish Alicia (Elle Fanning), Confederate loyalist Jane (Angourie Rice), earnest Amy (Oona Laurence), and the less defined Marie (Addison Riecke) and Emily (Emma Howard). They strive mightily to maintain a sense of normalcy, continuing with their French and embroidery lessons while the world shakes apart around them.

The bubble of fussy propriety in which they exist isn’t denial so much as a kind of protective performance of gentility — they’re women and children living in a combat area from which their army is retreating. Taken alone, they’re vulnerable, but taken as a group, with their white dresses and white skin in their their white house with white columns tucked in the midst of old trees, they seem to be attempting to shield themselves by becoming a symbol of sheltered 19th-century Southern womanhood. They aren’t merely clinging to a dying past (despite Martha’s romanticized reminiscences about a time when her father’s parties would fill the house with attendees in finery); their daily routine feels more like an act of desperate conjuring, an affirmation of their own worth, a way to demand decorum from anyone who comes through the school’s gate by insisting that that is the only conceivable way to treat them.

Coppola has always been fascinated by comfortable, cloistered spaces. She’s devoted most of her alternately praised and maligned filmmaking career to exploring the existences of the advantaged (if not always happy) white women who tend to reside within them, and in that, The Beguiled is no different. The Farnsworth Seminary is a place where girls are sent to be prepared for pampered lives of decorative domesticity, to go from being the doted-on daughters to the well-bred wives of powerful men. Its faculty and students spark to life when McBurney arrives, like a theater company finally getting an audience — no accident, when the playacted femininity in which they’ve been tutored is dependent on male attention and compliance.


Ben Rothstein / Focus Features

John McBurney (Colin Farrell) gets amorous with Edwina (Dunst).

But so, too, is their safety, hinging on the women’s ability to evoke the restrictive but protective societal order from which they came, even as it threatens to crumble away. The stakes of all that girlishness have never felt higher in a Coppola film, and the boundaries of the privilege its characters enjoy have never felt so fragile — not even at the end of Marie Antoinette, in which Dunst’s oblivious, doomed queen is chased by rioters from Versailles. The female characters of The Beguiled are neither as tightlaced nor as delicate as they present themselves — Martha, the most proper and wasp-waisted of them all, plucks metal shards out of McBurney’s leg herself in an early scene, then sews the torn flesh shut — but it’s to their advantage to appear like precious commodities that need to be protected.

Which is why McBurney, who Amy stumbles across injured in the woods, poses such a stealthy hazard to the combination sanctuary and cage the school represents. He’s a man being introduced into the company of a group of bored, lonesome young and grown women who are starved for male attention and contact, sure. But with his hurt leg and the patrols of Confederate soldiers outside, he also seems so safe, so controllable that Martha convinces herself it’s “Christian charity” to let him heal before turning him in.

When The Beguiled, which is based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan, was first adapted into a movie in 1971 by Don Siegel, it made the way McBurney disrupted the school’s antebellum repression an overripe punchline about female desire and jealousy. In that version, he’s played by Clint Eastwood with a smirk and a luxuriant mane of hair, a virile cad who sets every lady aflutter, from Martha (who’s revealed to have had an incestuous affair with her brother) down to 12-year-old Amy (who McBurney eyebrow-raisingly declares “old enough for kisses”). When he gets his comeuppance, the movie veers from Gone With the Wind territory into Misery country — all of it scornfully hell-hath-no-fury.


Ben Rothstein / Focus Features

Marie (Riecke), Jane (Rice), Alicia (Fanning), and Amy (Laurence).

Farrell’s McBurney in Coppola’s version is still dashing, and still tickled to find himself a rooster in a henhouse. But he’s been scaled down, both physically and in terms of swagger. This McBurney stumbled into a war he knew little about for pay and pleads to be allowed to stay at the school once he begins recovering. It’s not his sexual charisma that makes him so alluring — in fact, the first time he’s portrayed as an object of desire, he’s unconscious, Martha finding herself overwhelmed by the simple intimacy of laying hands on a male body again when she bathes his injuries. Instead, it’s the way he separates the women from their formation, cannily understanding what each wants to be told, whether it’s the promise of escape in Edwina’s case or professions of trust in Amy’s.

And they all want so badly to be the one he chooses, to be seen and plucked out of the herd, to be special — even though he’s like a 19th-century version of a bad male feminist with his willingness to say the right things lasting only until he feels his power has been eroded. McBurney doesn’t seem particularly motivated to limit his attentions to any one Farnsworth resident when he can charm (or more) them all. In goading them to spar for his affections, he comes to pose a threat not just to the rectitude on which the school’s reputation is staked, but also to the reluctant solidarity to which the women have been consigned. The Beguiled isn’t Coppola’s strongest film, but it’s her smartest and most skillful in portraying how the dynamics of a group of women can warp and weft under outside pressure, turning from community to competition.


Ben Rothstein / Focus Features

Martha (Kidman) and McBurney (Farrell).

Which is why it’s so aggravating that Coppola, who also wrote the script, chose to excise race from a story built on a foundation of slavery, as if leaning directly into criticisms of her work as an apologist for the advantages her white protagonists enjoy. These critiques are frequently unfair — characters being blinkered doesn’t mean the work itself has to be — but there’s an undeniable one to be made here in the way The Beguiled turns its gaze away from the institution enabling the lives these upper-crust women are living. And it’s an active elision — there’s a character, Hallie, who is a slave in Cullinan’s book, and who features prominently in the 1971 movie, in which she’s played by actor and blues singer Mae Mercer. Hallie remains under Martha’s control, but she has, in the shifting dynamics of wartime, eked out some small liberties for herself as deprivation has acted as a leveler between herself and the school’s cosseted students.

Siegel’s The Beguiled may be a more lurid and less finely wrought film, but it is astute in showing that no matter how vulnerable the white women feel, Hallie is forever more so. McBurney flirts with her just as fiercely as everyone else, and she flirts back, though she’s skeptically amused by his attempts to draw parallels between their situations, and by his promises to help her reunite with her escaped lover. But when McBurney seizes control of the school, it’s Hallie he threatens to rape, causing her to flash back to a past assault as she spits out that he should be prepared to kill her first. Any perceived sanctity of white womanhood the other characters try to hide behind was never extended to her.

Coppola told BuzzFeed News that her decision to take the character out, explained in the film via a single line about the slaves having left, came about because she “didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way.” The “important topic” being slavery, though her treating a character who is a slave as interchangeable with the institution indicates there’s a point she’s missing — which is that slavery already exists in the film, whether she chooses to put it onscreen directly or not. Slave labor kept the school running and underlies the wealth from which the school’s students come; it’s the ability to continue to practice slavery that’s spurred the war their fathers are off fighting.


Ben Rothstein / Focus Features

Emily (Howard), Edwina (Dunst), Alicia (Fanning), Amy (Laurence), Jane (Rice), Marie (Riecke), and Martha (Kidman).

It’s more than frustrating that The Beguiled is so adroit about the pageantry of privilege when it comes to gender and so negligent in treating race as something separable. It chooses to skirt the fact that the very class system these characters are trying to maintain their place atop rests on slavery, as do their own coddled existences, and to remove any mention of it doesn’t make this less so, it just creates a strange, noticeable vacuum. In a film that is so explicitly about white femininity, this omission doesn’t feel like the skipping of a topic too significant to be done justice to — it feels instead like willful blindness.

“The Mummy” Is A $125 Million Lesson About How Franchises Are Hard

Tom Cruise’s new movie The Mummy has something to sell you. And it is not Tom Cruise, who is still gamely devoted to giving the people what they want, whether that means hanging from airplanes, or grinning his way through press tours, or looking spookily untouched by time at the age of 54. Cruise is a star of the old guard, but stars old and new just don’t open movies the way they used to (not even the Rock is reliable).

Watching Cruise fit himself into a prefab brand like the one The Mummy is part of brings back the sensation of seeing Will Smith as a mere part of the Suicide Squad ensemble last year. It’s the bemused realization that while the age of the A-list actor has passed, the era that’s succeeding it — the age of the franchise — has yet to fully sort itself out.

And a franchise is what The Mummy is peddling — the “Dark Universe,” which is the name Universal Pictures has given to what has hubristically been planned as a potential 10-plus film series reinventing the studio’s library of classic monsters, from The Wolf Man to The Phantom of the Opera. Already in the hopper is a 2019 remake of Bride of Frankenstein, with Bill Condon directing, Javier Bardem playing Frankenstein’s monster, and Johnny Depp on board for the eventual role of the Invisible Man.

Which means that as the first Dark Universe installment, The Mummy, which was directed by Alex Kurtzman, is effectively a $125 million pilot. It’s tasked with hawking what Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) refers to as “a new world of gods and monsters,” with said monster-gods being targeted by or allied with Prodigium, the secret evil-fighting organization that Jekyll runs. And hawking a whole cinematic universe turns out to be an especially tough ask when The Mummy can’t even conclusively hawk itself over the course of its labored 107 minutes.

What The Mummy does have to offer is Kingsman’s striking dancer-turned-actor Sofia Boutella as the title character, a strategically bandaged undead Egyptian princess whose powers come from a deal she made with the god Set, and whose sparse lines at least spare her having to deal with much of the film’s clunky dialogue. Annabelle Wallis fares far worse as Jenny Halsey, Cruise’s archeologist love interest, a character charged with getting rescued, populating some strikingly awkward reaction shots, and making irrational swings in behavior as needed to guide the plot along. (The film’s third woman appears in a flashback, and dies almost immediately.)

Jake Johnson is underused as a comic sidekick with a twist borrowed from An American Werewolf in London, and Courtney B. Vance is even more so as a military type. Crowe, as the Dark Universe’s Nick Fury equivalent, flounders mightily with a character who’s meant to be a brilliant mastermind, but whose decisions are baffling, right down to the way he times the injections that keep his Mr. Hyde side at bay.

And then there’s Cruise as treasure hunter/grave robber Nick Morton, sparking to life only in the action set pieces in which he fights off zombie attackers while driving, and gets tumbled around a crashing airplane like socks in a dryer. Otherwise, he looks as lost as The Mummy feels, never clicking with a character who’s supposed to be a rogue with a heart of gold. The early scenes in which Nick and Jenny spar over having slept together before the start of the movie are actively painful, what’s supposed to be sparky banter instead as convincing as Steve Carell trying to describe breasts in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Nick, even in the grips of a curse, never actually feels torn between good and evil, making the moments in which he has to choose between the good (blonde) and evil (brunette, mummy) ladies in his life absurdly underwhelming.

Nick never seems like much of anything, really — anything more than just Cruise, doffing his shirt and deploying that hundred-watt smile and projecting a palpable hope that everyone watching is having a good time, even if he’s not sure what’s going on. There’s nothing he could have done to save The Mummy, or to have further ruined it either. The sad truth of The Mummy is that Cruise doesn’t matter all that much to it in the end. The movie grinds its way toward a will-be-back-again-soon finale that, tellingly, stages Nick’s biggest emotional moment so that you can’t see his face. It’s as if The Mummy is already setting up a way to go on without him, if it needs to.

It probably won’t. International box office numbers are unpredictable and have saved many a disappointing studio effort, but it’s still hard to imagine much of a future for the Dark Universe if this is the best pitch it can make for its existence — a film with no distinguishing characteristics or distinguished characters. It instead feels like an object lesson for the age of the franchise, one about how name actors may not matter as much as they used to, but characters definitely do. The Mummy promises a fantastical world of supernatural beings colliding and collaborating, forgetting that if no one cares about any one of these beings in particular, they’re not going to be sold on seeing them together, either.

The Most Unforgettable Movie Moments You Probably Missed Last Month

1. Bank employees get led out in cuffs in Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.


PBS Distribution

The Sung family in Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.

Only one US bank ended up indicted for mortgage fraud in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that crashed markets and set off a global economic downturn. It wasn’t JPMorgan Chase or Citigroup or another widely recognized name — it was Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a small institution servicing primarily a Chinese-American clientele. In May 2012, the family-run affair, with its roots in Manhattan’s Chinatown and a mortgage default rate that was a fraction of the national average, drew the attention of the New York County District Attorney’s Office.

The idea of a movie about a bank’s prosecution might not exactly sound riveting, but Abacus: Small Enough to Jail director Steve James (the documentarian responsible for Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters) manages to present the case like an epic David-and-Goliath struggle. And, in a rare instance these days, it’s not the bank that comes out looking like the villain.

James presents, instead, a multilayered and quietly enraging story about immigrants being treated as easy targets. The film explores how Abacus’s attempts to bridge cultural gaps for a sometimes insular community left it vulnerable to a DA’s office that sensed the potential for (and PR to be found in) a win against a financial institution, if not one of the apparently untouchable major ones.

The most eloquent image it puts onscreen is one that was actually staged for the press: a group of the bank’s employees being paraded in linked handcuffs, hiding their faces from the cameras. It’s a scene that, as interviewee and journalist Matt Taibbi notes, resembles “this almost Stalinist-looking chain gang.” One of the people in handcuffs puts it more simply: “It is a humiliation.”

How to see it: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is now in limited release and is making its way to theaters around the country.

2. A train ride turns incredibly tense in The Age of Shadows.


CJ Entertainment America

Um Tae-goo as Hashimoto and Song Kang-ho as Lee Jung-chool in The Age of Shadows.

Like last year’s The Handmaiden, The Age of Shadows is a thriller set in an oppressive but gorgeously rendered Japan-occupied Korea in the 1920s-’30s. It’s also packed with twists and tension (while coming up short on the startling explicit sex — sorry); but in its case, all that intrigue is for the sake of the nation.

Most of the characters in The Age of Shadows are resistance fighters plotting against their foreign oppressors by way of a plan to smuggle explosives in from Shanghai, a calling that comes with a high risk of death, torture, or imprisonment. The film’s most fascinating figure, however, isn’t a rebel — he’s an opportunistic police captain named Lee Jung-chool (the great Song Kang-ho) who was once resistance-adjacent but has since turned his loyalty, and his investigative services, over to the Japanese.

Resistance fighter Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) believes that Jung-chool, having been turned once, could be turned again, and their canny, calculated back-and-forths become the film’s backbone. But it’s action that director Kim Jee-woon (of A Bittersweet Life, I Saw The Devil, and the Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Last Stand) is renowned for. And that’s exactly what he provides in a series of stunning set pieces that make up for any espionage incomprehensibility, from an opening involving a police chase over rooftops to a chaotic train station shootout. The train ride becomes the film’s highlight, a brilliant sequence in which characters try to hide amid passengers, goods are smuggled, loyalties flip, and everything goes fabulously to hell despite everyone’s best efforts.

How to see it: The Age of Shadows is new to DVD and Blu-ray, and is also available for digital rental and purchase.

3. George Lazenby gets laid on the studio’s dime in Becoming Bond.


Hulu

Josh Lawson as George Lazenby in Becoming Bond.

The only consolation for losing one James Bond in May is getting such a rollicking tribute to another one, George Lazenby, in the form of Becoming Bond, Josh Greenbaum’s
Hulu original documentary. Lazenby, an Australian model with no acting experience, was famously chosen to replace Sean Connery in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Even more famously, Lazenby would play the iconic spy only once, brashly walking away from a multipicture deal to become an entertainment history punchline.

In Becoming Bond, he walks the audience through all this and more, starting with his working-class upbringing as a mechanic turned salesman, through the loss of his virginity, his romance with an upper-crust woman, and his eventual, incredible finagling of the world’s most coveted role. Greenbaum makes the very smart decision to stage Lazenby’s stories, Drunk History–style, with a cast that includes Josh Lawson as the man himself, as well as appearances from Jane Seymour, Jeff Garlin, and Dana Carvey.

The approach provides some distance from Lazenby’s sometimes unfortunately of-its-era treatment of women, and emphasizes the hilarity of this bluff, oblivious, hard-partying Aussie stumbling into stardom. In the best scene, Jake Johnson shows up at Lazenby’s door with a woman the soon-to-be-Bond cheerily and unquestionably begins banging, only to be informed later that the strange setup was staged by the studio to confirm his sexuality. Lazenby, unfazed by that and by seemingly everything else, shrugs and goes on.

How to see it: Becoming Bond is streaming on Hulu.

4. A traveler realizes she’s trapped in Berlin Syndrome.

Andi (Max Riemelt) and Clare (Teresa Palmer) in Berlin Syndrome.

The most painful scene in the abduction drama Berlin Syndrome isn’t the one in which Australian backpacker Clare (Teresa Palmer) first finds herself locked in the isolated apartment belonging to her fling Andi (Max Riemelt). That first day she plays off as an accident, the man she went home with forgetting to leave her a key after he heads off to work. It’s the second day in which she understands that it’s intentional — that the handsome German she met on the street and ended up postponing her trip to be with is dangerous. She doesn’t want to believe it, which is what makes the realization so slow and sickening — she keeps up a charade of everything being fine for as long as possible, until the urgency of her situation can no longer be ignored.

Berlin Syndrome is the rare abduction drama directed by a woman — filmmaker Cate Shortland, of Somersault and Lore. And that’s something you can feel in all of its choices, including the way it keeps Clare at its heart even when it follows Andi into the outside world he’s denied her. The film never turns Clare’s fear or suffering into spectacle — it’s about her experiences, about how she rebels against and then tries to manipulate Andi’s obsession and desire for a simulacrum of a normal relationship to her advantage. The result is an effective but never exploitative play on what plagues every solo female traveler — that you want to be open, to meet strangers and experience new places, but that that same trusting approach to exploring can also leave you horribly exposed.

How to see it: Berlin Syndrome is available for digital rental and purchase.

5. Tracy Letts sings in The Lovers.


A24

Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) in The Lovers.

The Lovers starts like a French adultery farce that’s been dropped into the most unromantic of suburban California settings. The cars are sensible, the couches are dumpy, the jobs involve seas of cubicles — and yet the orchestral score swoons when Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger), two halves of a long-wed couple, meet up with their respective lovers. Mary is seeing Robert (Aidan Gillen), a writer, while Michael is dallying with Lucy (Melora Walters), a hot-tempered ballet instructor. Both Michael and Mary insist, separately, that their marriage is over and that they’re ready to leave, to commit to their new partners — until an unexpected evening spent together results in the two rediscovering a sexual spark.

If this all sounds high-concept — a marital affair in the midst of two extramarital ones — well, The Lovers does play as a little schematic as first. But Azazel Jacobs’ movie is worth sticking with as it builds into something more bitter and complex about the nature of love, about how it can abide in ways that have nothing to do with the ebb and flow of passion or of even being able to stand one another. The Lovers features impressively frank lovemaking between characters of an age at which they’re usually consigned to onscreen sexlessness. But its rawest scene actually involves a song, performed by Letts after a visit from the couple’s son (Tyler Ross) and his new girlfriend (Jessica Sula) has brought all sorts of long-simmering anger and disappointment to light. It’s a familiar tune that’s transformed into something heartbreaking, carrying the weight of years — or just the weight of a decades-long relationship.

How to see it: The Lovers is now in theaters in limited release.

6. Survivors cry about wanting to go home in Seoul Station.


FilmRise

Seoul Station

Before South Korean filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho made the 2016 zombies-on-a-train thriller Train to Busan, he was known for his work in animation. So it’s not so odd that his prequel to that breakout hit, Seoul Station, is animated. But what is startling is that it’s even darker than the live-action film it precedes, in terms of both its ravenous undead action and its pointed social commentary.

The movie takes place in a Seoul teetering unknowingly on the verge of apocalypse, and it centers on characters who’ve been relegated to society’s outskirts — in particular, on a teenage runaway who’s forced into sex work, the father and ne’er-do-well boyfriend looking for her, and a group of homeless men living in the train station.

Maybe it’s the abstraction of animation that allows Seoul Station to get away with being so bracingly harsh — either way, it works from the beginning. In the dark suspense of the opening sequence, a homeless man with a developmental disorder tries and fails, repeatedly, to get help for his bitten friend. Even when that friend lurches back to life with alarming appetites, the city’s residents remain skeptical about claims of an infection, finding it easier to look away or to blame the aberrance on homelessness rather than believe something has gone terribly wrong.

By the time the body count picks up, it’s too late to do anything but run, or cry about wanting to go home, which is exactly what two characters do in the movie’s most relatable moment. It’s a plaintive, hopeless desire that gets turned into a very grim joke in the film’s final setting, achieving the kind of ending that makes you think, Hey, maybe it’s the zombies we should be rooting for.

How to see it: Seoul Station is available for rental or purchase on iTunes.