ICYMI ‘The Beguiled’ Reveals the Cracks in Our Imagined Selves

Sofia Coppola’s Cannes winner is all about the inevitable gap between who we are and who we claim to be.

The year is 1864. Somewhere in Virginia, a young girl walks through the woods, singing herself a sweetly imperfect melody. Viewers watch from behind as her small figure, head and shoulders framed by long brunette braids, bends, then bends again to collect mushrooms from the forest floor. The camera pans upward revealing tree branches arching and entwined, the vaults of a natural cathedral illuminated by the pale, even light of dusk. The girl walks unhurried down its aisle. The scene serves up a lush aesthetic world, stirring anticipation for what other visual delights await the viewer, even as it stirs anxiety for what awaits this forest wanderer.

The sight of a Union soldier propped up against a tree soon breaks the child’s reverie. A flicker of fear passes across both of their faces. Tension begins to ease as they grasp the common tool of social formalities and force an exceptional moment into following the script for making a new acquaintance. Miss Amy (Oona Laurence) and Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) introduce themselves: She is a student at a nearby girls’ school; he is a wounded runaway from a nearby battle.

Despite—or perhaps because of—his considerable charm, the Corporal comes across as only a little less vulnerable than the schoolgirl. He is, after all, bleeding profusely and hiding for fear of both the battlefield’s violence and the enemy’s capture. Guilelessly, Miss Amy assures him that the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies will take him in. Making their way toward the school, the hobbled man leans on the good graces and steady shoulders of the 12-year-old girl.

The Beguiled’s opening sequence is only the first of a series of compassionate and trusting interactions that lead to unsettling results. This artful and entertaining film meditates on the difference between how things appear and what they actually are. The action begins as a handful of Southern women nurse a wounded Union solider within the confines of their home. The man’s convalescence forces a series of difficult decisions about managing his presence, as well as when and how to ask him to leave. Ultimately, the matter of the Corporal’s exit incites crises of escalating intensity that drive the second half of the film toward a surprising resolution.

Director, screenwriter, and Cannes award winner Sofia Coppola’s dedication to sustaining a kind of visual enchantment is clear to the audience at once. So, too, is Coppola’s canny use of familiar character types to tell a story that hinges on hard-to-detect motives that lie within, like desire and dread. Coppola’s characters act on honorable impulses and risk trusting one another in the name of Christian virtues like charity, hospitality, mercy, and gratitude. Slowly, however, a space widens between the intentions they profess and the temptations which also shape their responses to one another. The theme of a duality between whom we tell ourselves we are and what our actions testify about us resonates throughout the narrative.

The Beguiled is a tale of people and circumstances being what they seem yet also far more. The same can be said of the movie’s genre identity: What is evidently a period melodrama also proves a dark thriller with a surprisingly keen sense of comedy. Its first hour packs in as many awkward exchanges, subtle innuendos, and knowing glances as any good comedy of manners. (Each of the three dinner scenes would do Jane Austen proud.) Coppola’s writing does an admirable job of making these genre transitions smoothly by tying them to the evolving situation of Farrell’s McBurney: The vulnerable convalescent transforms into a charming houseguest, and then into something far more complex.

McBurney’s transformation happens subtly but steadily, despite his physical incapacitation. Having been installed on the fainting couch of the Farnsworth Seminary’s music room, Corporal McBurney is subject to the ministrations of the six women living in the largely abandoned boarding school. Literally locked away and convalescing in the same spot for days, he entertains a parade of pale, pastel-clad women of different ages at his bedside. Each one furtively enters bearing some bit of news or help—water for a bath, soap for a shave, fresh bandages for his leg, even an unbidden kiss. The youngest piously slips him a prayer book, explaining that he’ll need it to make confession since he’s wounded and, by her estimation, likely to die very soon.

The repetition of this scenario is important: It highlights the constraints of McBurney’s situation. His knowledge of the school, the women in it, and their dispositions toward him are meted out to him in uneven portions during the visits he receives at all hours. Immobilized and locked into his room, his experience raises questions once again about appearances and realities: He is at once fussed-about patient, caged curiosity, charming bachelor, and enemy prisoner.

Meanwhile, each member in the trio of headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and restless ingénue Alicia (Elle Fanning) is very much whom she appears to be and more. The women compose a triangle that slowly takes shape around Corporal McBurney. Not quite a “love triangle” (it has more angles, and the romantic claims are shifting and indistinct), the rivalry arises as a byproduct of the desire that each one has for a male presence in her life.

McBurney faces both the opportunity and misfortune of having triggered these women’s longings. The opportunity, initially, is to stand simultaneously as a placeholder in their fantasies. His misfortune, in the end, is that of being only one man, incapable of satisfying any of the three women once reality takes hold…

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originally run by Christianity Today July 11, 2017

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ICYMI: Big Little Lies Tells the Truth

This March Christianity Today published my take on HBO’s star-heavy, murder-mystery miniseries, Big Little Lies. In it I honed in not what the series about lies gets right about contemporary motherhood.  


Big Little Lies is a lot of things: an adaptation of one of Oprah’s favorite beach novels, a miniseries produced by its stars Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, an excuse for innumerable shots of the coastline near Big Sur, a murder mystery unfolding in flashback, a satire of the privileged class and helicopter parenting, a melodrama about midlife crises, and a meta-commentary on how Hollywood’s female roles are comparatively less complex than the series’ characters.

While the plot of this new HBO series is moved forward by intertwined tales of mystery and friendship, its clearest preoccupation is the complexity of women’s identities, especially as they approach midlife. In the second episode, Reese Witherspoon’s character, Madeline, gazes thoughtfully toward the ocean when her first grader asks why Mommy so frequently stares at the sea. She answers, “The ocean is powerful. Mostly it’s vast. It’s full of life, mystery. Who knows what lies out there beneath the surface?” “Monsters?” asks Chloe. “Monsters? Maybe,” responds Madeline. “Dreams. Sunken treasure. It’s the great unknown.”

Their exchange works as a metaphor for how this narrative imagines its female characters: lasting but changeable, teeming with life, but maybe hiding beasts in the depths beneath the eye-catching surface.

Set in the town of Monterey, California, the story puts in motion a series of slights and confrontations that resemble a real-life “mommy war.” Central characters Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), and Renata (Laura Dern) are a veritable pantheon of mom types. Witherspoon is the over-involved “alpha” of the stay-at-home mom set. Kidman puts her almost too-polished cool to good use as the gorgeous mom with the gorgeous life. Dern manages an incredibly brittle yet believable performance as the career woman who juggles school events with corporate board meetings. The fourth notable character is Jane (Shailene Woodley), a young single mom just scraping by who is introduced to us in the first episode when she joins Madeline and Celeste for morning coffee. Leaning back from the table and assessing the scene in front of her—the seaside, the two beautiful moms who’ve invited her—she comments that it feels too perfect for her to belong in it. (Sometimes the metaphors aren’t all that subtle.)

A mystery as central to the series as its murder whodunit is how each of the major characters will navigate challenges to their sense of self. Each appears to the outside world as an archetype of a certain kind of female but is also savvy to how she is being perceived. Some of the most dramatic scenes show us (often private) moments when a woman’s actions or dialogue break with the expected cultural script for her archetype. For example, Renata the “C-suite” mom voices deep frustration and self-doubt when she’s alone with her husband. Exasperated by how little acceptance she finds among the other moms, she blurts out what she fears everyone in town thinks about her: “What kind of person chooses to work? Certainly not a mother by any acceptable standards.” In that instant my least favorite character became a woman that I know, even a woman that I have been on certain days.

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ICYMI: Farewell to TV’s Most Powerful Single Ladies

This February I wrote an essay for Christianity Today reflecting on the connections and–as one imagine–disconnects between how the late Mary Tyler Moore and Girls’ Lena Dunham represented single women on TV.  Both were revolutionaries, but I argue that the elder path-breaker, despite being the embodiment of “Minnesota Nice” was probably more effective at moving culture in her direction.

Here’s a teaser.  Click at the bottom to read the rest at CT.


Female television fans are saying some hard goodbyes this month. Two weeks ago television icon Mary Tyler Moore passed away at age 80. This Sunday, Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls will debut the first episode of its final season.

Separated as they were by years and their approaches to, well, just about everything, it is easier to imagine these two actresses as poles on a spectrum from “purposefully disturbing” to “calculatingly genial” rather than as co-laborers for a common cause. And yet it’s hard to name any two women who have influenced the way television portrays single women more than Dunham and Moore.

As creator, writer, and star of Girls, Dunham has represented the unique challenges of millennial women—from reconciling high hopes in a crappy economy to understanding one’s relationship status in a hook-up culture.

Over the life of the show, Dunham has exploited HBO’s reliance on nudity for her own ends and in so doing served up a feminist critique of unrealistic images of women’s bodies. In a recent interview, Dunham recalled how her insistence on frequent nudity almost spoiled her effort to recruit series regular Allison Williams: “She said, ‘I don’t want to do nudity.’ I was like, ‘We have to get back to you. I’m gonna be naked, people are gonna be naked—that’s a big part of what this show is.’” The sexually explicit encounters on the show, however, strike me more as gritty renderings of broken dating culture than the refreshingly realistic explorations of sexuality that Dunham no doubt intended.

For all Dunham’s boundary-pushing on pay cable, it is unlikely that her show’s confrontational aesthetic will become the norm. Girls attempts to move culture like a tug boat pulls along a ship. The vanguard series has won tons of praise from the cultural elite but can only claim between less than one million and five million viewers an episode. Girls has influenced the influencers, but its niche popularity suggests that it’s no barometer for whether Americans are ready to recalibrate gender norms.

Mary Tyler Moore, on the other hand, seems to have been more deft at knowing how to nudge the machinery of culture-making in a women-centered direction. Her cheerful ’70s sitcom is widely acknowledged as a crucial pivot in our culture’s acceptance of both single and working women. From 1970–1977, The Mary Tyler Moore Show won 29 Emmys and was consistently rated in the top 20, if not the top 10 programs on television.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted in 1970 with a simple but totally novel premise: It featured a single, working woman as its main character. Mary Richards is a 30-year-old journalist who moves to Minneapolis for her career. She doesn’t live with or near any of her family, nor is she hoping to find a husband and start a family of her own. Instead she forms deep, supportive relationships with other women and her work colleagues. The show de-centers men or motherhood as the central sources of identity, conflict, or comedy for Moore’s character. In fact, Richards does not date much at all—a decision (by the writers) that closed down any need to comment on the ongoing sexual revolution.

By generally ignoring its main character’s love life, Mary Tyler Moore’s series produced seven years of episodes that all pass the Bechdel test (which requires that a story have two female characters who speak to each other about something other than men).  Read the rest.