There are a number of scenes in The Beguiled that may feel eerily familiar to the alumnae of all-girls schools, but for me there was one in particular that unleashed a torrent of repressed memories. (Sadly, it was not the extremely libidinous sponge bath.) After a wounded Union solider (played by Colin Farrell) lands on the doorstep of a Virginia girls’ school, the headmistress, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), nurses him back to health and allows him to stay on. This means that a man (a man!) now inhabits this previously totally man-less atmosphere. And so, in honor of the newly healed man, Miss Martha prepares a special dinner: fried chicken, fresh peas, an abundance of wine, port, and sexual tension. All of the girls dress up, especially Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), who shows off her bare shoulders like a harlot. Alicia (Elle Fanning) makes sure he knows who made the apple pie, while Edwina makes sure he knows it was her recipe, while all the other girls make sure he knows they too love apples.
It’s slightly ridiculous. These girls are having dinner in their own home, just as they do every night. But in the presence of a man (a MAN!), they become possessed by some sort of horny, competitive demon. They must find a way, any way, to get the attention of this man they have now decided they desire. Doesn’t matter what man. It’s just Man.
While watching each girl, from youngest student to oldest faculty member, proudly flush and giggle their way through dinner, I had a vivid flashback of to my tenth-grade French-Regular (i.e., not AP) teacher. He was hot, Greek, taking a year off to teach before going to medical school, and he played violin. He was there to teach us how to conjugate stuff — but, unbeknownst to him, he was also teaching a course in Advanced Objectification. Until, that is, we orchestrated a French-themed dinner at someone’s house so that we would have the opportunity to flirt with him off campus, out of uniform. He must have figured out our endgame — he never showed up. We’d made chocolate soufflés.
In The Beguiled, Coppola has nailed a very specific sort of desire: It’s not just the female gaze; it’s the starved female gaze. She captures the singular primal horniness that manifests whenever a lone semi-attractive (honestly, they don’t even have to be that semi-attractive) male shows up in an all-female space. More than the 1971 Clint Eastwood original on which her film is based, Coppola’s version understands how lust can play out in subtle ways. “Subtle” partly because you’d get a demerit for horndogging too obviously, but also because nobody quite has the tools or experience to convey their desires more effectively.
It’s a wonder none of the male teachers at my all-girls high school filed sexual-harassment complaints. Any man who offered some sort of reprieve from our female teachers (and from the lone, ponytail-having, Grateful Dead–loving, middle-aged-dude teacher) was like a juicy rib-eye on a platter — the heterosexual portion of the student body comprehensively lost their shit. The after-school SAT teacher – fine-looking, loved Phish, in a frat, mostly just not old — was someone none of us would have dated had we encountered him in college. But resources were scarce, and we drooled over him like he was Justin Theroux’s gray sweatpants-bulge. We were resourceful in our horniness, and willing to make do with the available materials.
When McBurney enters a room, the sexual tension is as thick as the southern humidity. It’s like a disturbance in the force field — an adrenaline surge that causes everybody to forget what to do with their hands, or how to blink, or where to put their notebooks. They can’t say his name without a giggle or a brow sweat or a blush. When he speaks in his Irish accent or smiles at a student, it’s like nobody can remember words. It’s an experience that will be familiar to anyone who endured an all-women’s education, whether in the 1860s or the 2000s.
Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) puts on her fanciest brooch, the one she hasn’t worn since Christmas, and tells the corporal her secret hopes and fantasies about someone taking her far away. Miss Martha is pointedly mean to John, and cuttingly humiliates everyone for trying too hard or being slutty (cover those shoulders, Edwina) in order to impress. Alicia (Elle Fanning) is basically eye-fucking at every turn, because there’s always that one girl who’s actually starting to figure out how to get what she wants. And the rest of the young students are doing their own dance of desire — mostly just trying to earn his friendship or quasi-paternal attention by giving him reading or fresh green beans, or whatever a preteen imagines might work.
The most accurate, though, is the film’s depiction of what happens when desire turns to contempt. Male teachers in this space have one job: be silent recipients of that desire. They cannot call attention to it, they cannot act on it (I mean, legally, they really can’t), but if they break that contract as Farrell does — well, hell hath no fury like an all-girls student scorned.