A Country Only Ever Goes to War with Itself | The Beguiled and the Ghost Stories of a Silent Battlefield

The Beguiled stars Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell in a re-envisioning of the 1971 original film of an American Civil War-era southern gothic suspense.  The setting is a smoky, war-ridden Eden overrun with lack of care.  Corporal McBurney (Farrell) is a Northern soldier injured in battle and taken in by an all-girls private school run by widowed head mistress Miss Martha (Kidman) after one of her girls discovers him while gathering mushrooms.  A thoughtful comparison could be made of the two different versions of the movies, especially in how they view the influence of the Civil War on the culture of non-combatants.  Sofia Coppola, in the 2017 version, makes the War more of an abstract concept than the original, which featured male-lead Clint Eastwood laying waste to Southern gray coats as well as the residue of battle in flashbacks to the moment that left him in such an vulnerable state.  In Coppola’s version, war is as immaterial as the fog (or gun smoke… it’s left ambiguous) that surrounds a final bastion of southern antebellum society, a quiet but looming presence.   

However, much more interestingly to me than a comparison of two different versions of the same story are the parallels with another Nicole Kidman film, 2001’s The Others. As The Beguiled exists in the midst of the American Civil War, The Others exists on what is assumed to be England in the midst of World War II.  Kidman plays Grace Stewart an upper class woman bound to her house in the midst of bedlam somewhere else as she takes shelter with her children and servants.  (Spoiler Alert.)  The twist comes when Kidman’s character realizes that not only are the servants ghosts but she and the children are as well (Grace having asphyxiated the children and shot herself).  They are bound to the house, the dead are the living and life itself becomes questionable, almost parasitic in the aftermath of war.  Similarly, the women in The Beguiled are dressed in color scheme nearly identical to that of the house.  The fog dresses the sky so that the entire atmosphere is an eerie dreamscape.  The house serving as their living tomb in the midst of so much eminent death that surrounds them.  Both have the inseparability of person from place as a foundational leitmotif.

Kidman is the silver thread running between both movies, but there is another bit of glimmering sinew uniting them in the notion best expressed by philosopher Simone Weil (but certainly not the only person to express such an idea), that a war is not between countries but each country at war with its own citizens.  To quote Weil,

Since the directing apparatus has no other way of fighting the enemy than by sending its own soldiers, under compulsion, to their death – the war of one state against another state resolves itself into a war of the state and the military apparatus against its own people.”  

The Others and The Beguiled both instigate the public sphere (traditionally, the masculine aspect of society) as forcing the private sphere (traditionally, the feminine aspect of society) to endure the war as a boundless state of emotional duress.

In some cases, I felt Coppola and The Others director Alejandro Amenábar consciously sought to draw a connection between the ambiguous setting of a ghost story and a war.

Surrounding the estate in The Others as a constant dusk, a thick fog blocks off the grounds from the war that happens somewhere else.  Grace Stewart’s long lost husband, an Allied soldier, creates the first sign of true friction in the movie when he emerges from the fog, a chaotic element from the periphery (where we must assume the war takes place) disrupting the previously unshakable mise en scène of the domestic space. In The Beguiled, in a similar way, an injured Yankee soldier is taken into a girls’ boarding school (headed by Kidman’s Miss Martha) for convalescence, disrupting the sterile, religious atmosphere of the house with a radical notion of desire and sexuality.  More than this though is the isolation of both locations.  I felt I was invited to assume the space was a ghost story as much as a war zone.  In some cases, I felt Coppola and The Others director Alejandro Amenábar (he also directed Open Your Eyes, the inspiration for Vanilla Sky, another exercise in metaphysics) consciously sought to draw a connection between the ambiguous setting of a ghost story and a war.

Central to both movies is the private, domestic space of the house with its potential for shadowy caveats (hence its attractiveness for ghost stories) and ambiguous, shifting roles (stereotypical men – i.e. a soldier – can become feminized when injured; a stereotypical woman – homemaker/mother –can become masculinized in a dominating position over an injured man in need of care).  Grace and her children wait for her husband to return from war as the daughters of Confederate soldiers await their fathers to return and, therefore, assert that the war has ceased and so resume their former lives.  There is tension as the girls live in the midst of a horrific war that is not being spoken of as Grace and the children live amongst the forced silence of the servants who died in a tuberculosis outbreak and remain silent about Grace’s murder of the children.  There is the fog that becomes the boundary the children and her cannot break.  

The fragile boundary the private domestic space uses to block out the anarchy of the public’s implosion is becoming diaphanous, the two realms more and more indistinguishable.

The parallel to this is the smoke from battle (or fog) that the girls are told not to go beyond.  Grace’s husband emerges from this fog, a disorientated figure from the war Out There as the soldier in The Beguiled appears from the smoke of battle (Out There) weakened from injury and is welcomed grudgingly into the house.  The fragile boundary the private domestic space uses to block out the anarchy of the public’s implosion is becoming diaphanous, the two realms more and more indistinguishable.  The sudden apparition of the male figure becomes a source of chaos as Grace and her children are thrown into disarray along with the tumultuous circumstances of her relationship with the children.  Similarly, the unsurety in The Beguiled arising among developing women and the simultaneous fear and desire of the male presence cause a panicked lust among the women.

Coppola makes this clear at the beginning when the camera follows the young girl collecting mushrooms that eventually leads her to the injured McBurney.  The winding shot and solitary child rummaging through the woods gives off shades of Little Red Riding Hood.  The way it follows her trajectory is insidious, obsessive.  McBurney is bearded, burly, almost wolf-like when she finds him.  He shaves eventually, cloaking himself in a burnished façade of gentility, but his bestial nature emerges when he angrily chases the girl in one of the final scenes (you can even hear a wolf howl in the background).  In interviews, Coppola noted that McBurney, as opposed to any of the women, was shot as an object of desire.  One scene especially accentuates this: when he is doing garden work and pauses, sweating with shirt undone, as Kirsten Dunst’s Edwina stares at him longingly from a window.  War cloaks itself in symbols of former civility, but eventually its ravages rupture the interior space.  

McBurney manipulates the emotions of Miss Martha and her twenty-something co-teacher Edwina.  He specifically has eyes for Edwina, promising to take her away from the house/school that she feels is ever more becoming a constraint.  However, when she discovers him in the bed of a student, Alicia (Ellie Fanning), late one night, Edwina, horrified, beats McBurney and unintentionally sends him rolling down a large stairwell in the house, gravelly re-injuring his leg. Miss Martha hurriedly amputates his leg under the auspices of medical necessity.  The motivation behind the act isn’t discussed in the movie and it’s left open whether Martha has let her own sense of betrayal guide her.  McBurney is horrified when he awakens, turning against the women of the house.  Martha sends the young girl who first found McBurney out to pick poisonous mushrooms, which McBurney unknowingly consumes as the women maintain quiet, unemotional postures: perfect debutantes awaiting the death of this violent outsider.  Even Edwina, who knows nothing of Martha’s plan, watches McBurney with some detachment die a painful death.  There’s almost a sense that he must be sacrificed to ensure the purity of the domestic space against the raucous nature of the war outside the gates of the school.

Both movies exist in their times, they do not take place.  Their fiction is the only sure reality that can possibly exist.

Is it a reversal of Eden?  A violent maintaining of a “paradise” amongst so much death and chaos beyond the school walls?  Christian ethic becoming violent in its attempt to protect what little vestiges of antebellum society remain.  The interesting thing is that this statement could apply to either movie.  What holds it together, in my opinion, is the foundation provided by Kidman’s respective characters.  She endures the torpor of war’s silent reach, while elaborating what some might consider a delusion of order.  Yet, it is this delusion that allows it to exist.  Both movies exist in their times, they do not take place.  Their fiction is the only sure reality that can possibly exist.  The house, as a space, is fictional within the landscape of war which obliterates all patterns of normality.  All people within it are reduced to the lowest level of humanity, all are bare life that can be perfunctorily sacrificed in order to appease larger desires of the state.  What is left to individual people in such a situation?  Especially those considered marginal such as women and children?

At the end of The Beguiled, the women and the shrouded soldier and the building are all indistinguishable from each other.  Who is being fooled?  What is being lost?  They seem like the dead already.  The fog faintly frames everything as if the setting were a graveyard at dusk.  There is an embrace of death as the soldier is killed for trying to separate the community of women.  In the end, the soldier’s shroud, the clothing of the women and the house itself are monochromatic. Similarly in The Others, Grace and her children, once the truth of their demise is revealed and the plague of the living is driven from the house, are revealed in a pull back with the camera to reveal that the dead live amongst the living.  That the dead are not just those slaughtered in war but those left to the chaos created by the mania of a society continually destroyed by war and refused rehabilitation.  A country at war with others will sacrifices the bodies of all its denizens, whether physically, emotionally or spiritually.

 

Featured Image Source

You might also like More from author