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Fashion, the Female Gaze, and The Dangers of Aestheticising History: Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’

by Amy Walter

Under a haze of candlelight and prairie dresses, Sofia Coppola’s 2017 film ‘The Beguiled’ takes place. The movie fits perfectly into the pastel world of ‘Marie Antoinette’ and ‘The Virgin Suicides,’ hiding away a far darker story of desire, violence and vengeance. The audience, along with the male character of Mcburney, wanders into the untouched world of femininity in rural America.

Within the film, Coppola challenges the previous 1971 remake of the Thomas Cullinan novel, wanting to tell the story through the eyes of the female-gaze. 

Examining the rarely depicted experience of women during conflict. Sofia Coppola spoke on how “It’s a story about strong women, and I wanted to look at these characters in more depth, where in the 1971 film, they’re more kind of crazy, or just caricatures. You don’t really know as much about them.” 

In typical Sofia Coppola fashion, she allows the audience an insight into the lives of these women, not limited to how the men view them.

In the South of the United States, during the Civil war, a wounded soldier, named John Mcburney, is saved by a pupil of the local girl's school. The women take in the soldier, played by Colin Farrell, and the movie begins to show the shift in dynamics between the women as they compete for his attention. 

However, things take a turn as Miss Morrow, who Mcburney claimed to love, finds him sleeping with an underage student. After the angered conversation, Morrow pushes Mcburney away, resulting in him falling down the stairs, becoming unconscious. The plot intensifies as the girls believes the best treatment would be to perform an amputation, once awoken to the realisation, Mcburney reacts in hostility and fear. 

After he threatens one of the women with a gun, Marie, one of the students, suggests poisoning Mcburney at dinner, resulting in his death.

Through the female characters, Sofia Coppola explores the varying dynamics between the women, something the character of Mcburney only comes to disrupt. 

Alicia, played by Elle Fanning - one of Coppola’s favourite repeat stars, is completely bored by her life at the boarding school, desperately craving newness. Whist Miss Martha rejects any form of newness, particularly when it comes in the form of a man. The teenage girls quickly have pearls in their ears and new dresses at the ready when Mcburney stays at the school. Despite Miss Martha’s attempts to control the situation, the determination of a crush from the teen girls prevails.

Like that of ‘The Bling Ring,’ ‘The Beguiled’ features the costume designer Stacey Battat. The similarity between this film and her previous works can be seen in the fashion choices, Coppola describing her initial thoughts of the “pastel-y” dresses as reminiscent of “The Virgin Suicides and the prom dresses that they wore. The pastels that they wore all related to one another.” 

Despite the girls' similarities their clothes also depict differences in their characters. Whilst Miss Martha, the headmaster, “doesn’t wear a lot of colour” reflecting her inherent sternness, Alicia’s “untamed energy” is reflected in her unbuttoned shirts and messy hair. The prairie dresses, frills and milkmaid frocks only hiding away the forbidden desires of the women that wear them, previously seen in the oppressed suburbia of ‘The Virgin Suicides.’

Aesthetically, the film was a direct response to ‘The Bling Ring.’ Sofia Coppola told The Guardian she felt her previous “movie was so ugly” adding she “really wanted to follow it with something beautiful, something poetic after all that trash culture.”  Due to this, ‘The Beguiled’ has a much softer colour palette, caught under a haze of lit candles and fading sunlight. 

Coppola opted for a more subtle score, the first two acts accompanied only by chirping birds and the sound of crickets. This, along with the soft lighting and lace curtains, allows the audience to completely indulge in the isolated environment of the women, we too experience the silences and yearning of the characters. Wide shots, as used throughout Coppola’s work, are also used to reflect the isolation of the women. 

The audience seeing them gazing longingly out of large windows or lying under a tree, this simplicity highlighting Coppola’s tendencies to find the beauty in subtleties, rather than seeking it out in dramatic action sequences.

Having acclaimed praise, it also received similar criticism seen in Coppola’s past films.  The movie was criticised for ‘whitewashing’ the 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan. Not only did Coppola remove the supporting role of a black female slave from the film, but she also had Kirsten Dunst play an originally biracial character. 

In response to this, Sofia Coppola told The Guardian she didn’t want to “brush over such an important topic in a light way,” adding “Young girls watch my films, and this was not the depiction of an African American character I would want to show them.” 

So, whilst many would defend Coppola’s decision, “as not her story to tell”, one MTV article asked the question, 'Lost In Translation' Is An Insufferable, Racist Mess — Why Would We Expect 'The Beguiled' To Be Any Different?’

Whilst always bringing differing opinions, this film remained true to the aesthetics, fashion and story Sofia Coppola has become known for. 

Being an ode to the works of ‘The Virgin Suicides,’ and a grown-up sister to the world of repressed women in isolated America. Under the female-gaze, the darker story of ‘The Beguiled’ still takes place under the “pastel world” of prairie dresses and longing stares. 

Yet, the choice of aestheticising history has also been questioned when it comes to ‘The Beguiled,’ arguing it excludes black women from being part of this “pastel world.”  

Edited by Emily Duff


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