Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’: Why Some Critics Brought Out the Knives

For the most part Sofia Coppola has been spared the coded, patronizing, and often frankly misogynist, criticism leveled at movies by female filmmakers. But that was before the June 23 release of Coppola’s “The Beguiled.” While her overall review rating on Metacritic is 77, something about her rethink of Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation of the novel by Thomas Cullinan has brought out a few knives.

Some cuts are of the double-standard sort. The same people who love Wes Anderson rip Coppola for being a child of privilege and making movies about those of her class. The same people who love Jason Reitman attack Coppola, implying that she gets work only because she has a father who is a famous director. While Ralph Waldo Emerson said that foolish consistency is a hobgoblin of small minds, this isn’t a consistency of foolishness but of critical fairness.

“The Beguiled”

Is there a reason other than the double standard that Coppola (and Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers) get cited for directing while privileged, but Anderson (and Woody Allen and Francis Coppola) get a free pass?

More pertinent is the justifiable criticism that by making a Civil War-era film without people of color, Coppola is whitewashing the period. Steven Spielberg was similarly criticized for not having significant characters of color in “Lincoln.” But few completely dismissed “Lincoln” out of hand for this reason. Then why completely dismiss “The Beguiled”? (Gene Seymour, former movie critic for Newsday, thinks Coppola was in a no-win situation vis-à-vis inclusion. “The way I figure it,” he said, “If there had been a slave girl, somebody somewhere would have made something of that.”)

More troubling than the double standard leveled against Coppola and “The Beguiled” is the coded critical language implying that her point-of-view (and by extension, that of any woman) is lightweight, invalid, or somehow insufficient. Let’s look at three reviews from USA Today, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I’ve known Todd McCarthy and Owen Gleiberman since the ’80s and that even when I disagree with them, their arguments almost always persuade me. Not in this case.)

Colin Farrell in “The Beguiled”

Focus Features

In USA Today, Brian Truitt began his pan of “The Beguiled” with, “It lacks the necessary edge to make it a satisfying revenge thriller.” Necessary edge? Is that a euphemism for a tool that men have and women lack? He likes the atmospheric cinematography while dismissing it as “artsy” and “overly pretentious.” He concludes with, “’The Beguiled’ won’t leave you hot, but more likely bothered.” So the necessary edge it lacks is female nudity that would make it more frankly erotic?

Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the Coppola film “is a respectable but pallid redo of a hothouse Civil War melodrama by Don Siegel, and starring Clint Eastwood, 46 years ago.” Again the word hot.  Not hot enough, apparently. He continues, “Other than to place slightly more emphasis on the female empowerment angle…it’s hard to detect a strong raison d’etre behind Sofia Coppola’s slow-to-develop melodrama.”

Respectable. Is that code for unsexy? The female empowerment angle isn’t raison d’etre enough? Why not? Doesn’t the fact that Siegel sympathized with the fox in the henhouse and Coppola with the hens materially alter the story? Would any critic, male or female, deem it fair to describe a Clint Eastwood film as one told from “the male empowerment angle?”  Probably not, because 94% of films we see take male empowerment as a given. Anyway, most Eastwood films are about masculinity, rather than male empowerment. Just as Coppola’s is about femininity rather than female empowerment.

Correctly describing  Siegel’s 1971 iteration of “The Beguiled” as “basically [having] the plot of a porn movie,” Owen Gleiberman in Variety goes on to say that, “After stripping down the sordid subtext of the 1971 version of ‘The Beguiled,’ [Coppola] was left with a light didactic fable – a trifle of identity politics.” Reading that, I actually said out loud, “Don’t trifle with me, Owen.” But it was the female identity politics that made my head explode. Is he really saying that when a man makes a movie from his perspective, it’s normative and when a woman makes a movie from hers, it’s identity politics?  In his wrap-up Gleiberman says that Coppola “has feminized ‘The Beguiled’ into a prestige movie….” Ah, feminized. Again with the F word. And so his conclusion is …that porn is good and prestige not so much?

No edge. Not hotFemale identity politicsFeminized. Such derision does not accurately evoke the movie I saw, the one about the man who finds himself in a land of women, not unlike Steve, the Chris Pine character in “Wonder Woman, “who finds himself in Themyscira and recognizing that the women hold the power and also recognizing it’s not his story, but her story. (Thank you, Keith Phipps for pointing out that this is the theme of summer movies, 2017.)

Here are some hunches. Might some critical derision for “The Beguiled” spring from the let-down about it no longer being his story but their story?  Might the disappointment about the movie not being hot enough stem from the film’s insufficient boobage and surplus of interest in Colin Farrell’s sculpted torso? Might some men, watching the scene of Nicole Kidman sizing up Farrell’s body, feel as judged as and vulnerable as his character does — and as I do when male directors exult in the female body?

I suspect that one or all of these may be in play. While I don’t think that these reviews are sexist, I believe that they do reveal unconscious bias.  And I sincerely hope that making the bias conscious will be the first step to overcoming it.