As one of the most influential woman filmmakers working today, only Sofia Coppola could sneak in a castration scene. In “The Beguiled,” Coppola flips the script on the original 1971 Don Siegel film starring Clint Eastwood, putting the women at the center of her version and mapping a clear blueprint for a female gaze in cinema.
Set during the Civil War, the film concerns an injured Union soldier who wreaks havoc on the inhabitants of Miss Farnsworth’s School For Girls in Virginia. A house full of women thrown into a tizzy by the presence of a man isn’t the most radically feminist story; that Coppola tells it by objectifying, emasculating, and symbolically castrating her central male character certainly is.
The female gaze is a term as new as its burgeoning canon, recently popularized by “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway. (“I’m trying — if there is a such a thing. Maybe it’s the queer gaze, maybe it’s the other gaze, maybe it’s the gazed gaze,” Soloway said). In her 1975 essay, film theorist Laura Mulvey discussed how classic Hollywood movies used women as objects to be looked at rather than masters of their own fate. She argued that women on film were triply objectified: by the male filmmaker behind the camera, shooting the male protagonist with whom the audience identifies, for an assumed male spectator.
As Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) gently scrubs down Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), her washcloth (and the camera) hovers over the smooth hollow between his hip bone and abdomen. She has pulled his muslin shift up as high as propriety will allow, and strokes his upper thigh with a tenderness that belies her icy exterior. The Corporal’s shift is loose and low-cut, unbuttoned to expose a sliver of his hairy chest. When he’s not wearing it, beads of sweat and water pool inside his clavicle. When he sits up, his greasy mop of dark hair sweeps out from a sharp widow’s peak and across his distinguished brows.
The Corporal is an object of curiosity, disdain, and desire to the girls of the decaying Southern manor. His leg injury prevents him from walking, and he is not only bedridden but also locked inside his room. He is completely at the mercy of his female caretakers, who can turn him in as a deserter at any time, which would mean imprisonment or possibly death. They are his keepers, and the mistresses of his fate. As he heals, the women use his body for labor. He trims the dead branches off the trees, dripping with sweat as he wields his axe. Passing by on their way to hang the laundry, the girls look on admiringly as if to say: “It’s nice to have a man around the house.”
When the Corporal steps out of line at the film’s first climax, infiltrating lusty teen Alicia’s (Elle Fanning) bedroom, it is the ultimate male betrayal. The Corporal insists the two older women were just jealous he didn’t visit their rooms, that he merely behaved as any man would. Such behavior won’t fly in a woman’s world. Their plaything has broken the rules of the game, and he must be punished. Through an accident, the Corporal falls down the stairs, injuring his leg again. This time, Miss Martha must amputate. The loss of his limb emasculating him even further, the leg stands in for the phallus. And without it, he is more dependent on his castrators than ever before.
Without a doubt, Coppola’s reimagining is not as progressive as Soloway’s idealistic notion of the female/other/gazed gaze. Simply swapping the object of desire for a man instead of a woman does not reinvent the wheel so much as put it on the other side of the car. With Coppola behind the camera, and all of those lustful eyes on the Corporal onscreen and off, “The Beguiled” is a stylish contribution to the creation of a female gaze — albeit one that objectifies men.