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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Westworld Stages a Consciousness Raising

HBO’s new hit show riffs on one of Second Wave feminism’s signature tactics

At the start of the pilot it was Dolores.  At the start of this weekend’s episode, Maeve.

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Images from Westworld via The Week

These shots of two of Westworld’s central characters waking up help visually underscore the narrative parallels of these two characters. As stereotypes of women they represent the Westworld poles of the madonna/whore dichotomy. Both are attractive to a number of the park’s visitors, though one for her romantic innocence as much as the other for her worldly knowing.

The similar shots of waking also provide us reminders that Westworld is a story in no small part about androids waking up to their circumstances as objects designed for entertainment that are also frequently objects of desire, sex, and violence.

The theme of awakening to the true structure of their reality is also echoed in the script followed by employees performing diagnostic interviews with “hosts” in the corporate laboratory.  In this set-piece, the host in question (often Dolores) answers the question, “Do you know where you are?” with, “Yes, I am in a dream.”

Thus the movement between the real world as dream and the “awake” world of the Westworld theme park takes on irony and existential weight for main characters Dolores and Maeve.

Viewers can expect that as these women awaken to their circumstances, something in the narrative world will change.

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And that expectation feels like a pop cultural legacy of Second Wave feminism to me.   Continue reading Westworld Stages a Consciousness Raising

‘The Good Place’ Imagines an Eternity of Ethics Lessons

The NBC comedy serves up an unusual take on the afterlife with a side of fro-yo, hold the religion.

[written for Christianity Today, you can start the article here and read the rest on their homepage.]

From time to time, popular culture weighs in with advice about the afterlife. “You can’t take it with you,” admonishes the Pulitzer Prize–winning play by the same title. A popular ’50s polka warns that “in heaven there is no beer.” According to NBC’s The Good Place there is, however, a copious amount of frozen yogurt.

The Good Place, now hitting its mid-season stride, is the latest TV comedy from writer/producer Michael Shur—also creator of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine and a writer on The Office. Shur’s wit and his penchant for strongly drawn characters feel familiar. The new series makes a strong break from his run of workplace comedies, however, by setting its storyline in heaven.

Or a version of heaven. Simply called “The Good Place,” it’s an afterlife that exists without a relationship to any of the world’s religions, all of which failed to rightly imagine how to enter the hereafter. Instead a complex logarithm narrows down those granted eternity in The Good Place, admitting only the most elite among do-gooders, activists, and philanthropists. While the series forgoes the concepts of sin and religion per se, it regularly relies on ethical lessons in the hereafter.

This potentially weighty narrative tactic is lightened by the whimsical aesthetic and quirky details of life in The Good Place. The architect behind this particular neighborhood of the afterlife is a supernatural being named Michael (Ted Danson, his impeccable comic timing in force). Obsessively detailed and fascinated by human culture, Michael has worked painstakingly to optimize his corner of the afterlife for his charges’ happiness.

Upon arrival, every one is granted a mansion of their dreams and introduced to their true soul mate. Residents pass their days acquiring skills like learning how to fly or being treated to a perfect re-creation of their favorite earthly meal ever. They also enjoy unlimited frozen yogurt in hundreds of unlikely flavors.

                                   NBC Universal

Nonetheless, something is amiss in this corner of eternal happily ever after. That something is a someone named Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell, more charming as the episodes stack up), who was, among other things, a snake-oil marketer, litterbug, and generally unreliable friend back on Earth.

Admitted to heaven in an unexplained mix-up, Eleanor finds that Michael has her name right, but all the other details of her biography wrong. Now Eleanor must deceive her way through this do-gooders afterlife, trying to keep up a charade of saintliness to avoid being found out and sent to The Bad Place.

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