Location, Location, Location: How The Beguiled Uses Setting To Tell a Story

By: Andrew L. Schwartz

A lesson that screenwriters can take from The Beguiled is how to use your location as a functioning external vice that forces characters to reveal their innermost conflicts.

Director Sofia Coppola has long toyed with the notion of binding characters to their environment: from Versailles in Marie Antoinette to the suburbs of Los Angeles in The Bling Ring, her characters have built these worlds apart as sanctuaries sheltering them from the realities of the real world. The Beguiled’s set up offers a clear picture of the setting and location, and how conflict will be introduced by threatening that world. 

Set in the backwoods of Virginia during the American Civil War, The Beguiled opens with the rampant rhythm of heavy artillery as it bellows in the near distance. Amongst the cool calmness of the woods, smoke rises from the battlefield and creeps through a sanctuary of trees surrounding the Farnsworth Seminary For Young Ladies. For the remaining ladies of the near-deserted seminary, this has been a normal occurrence for the past three years. It’s a constant reminder of a war that is never far from their ears and always in their hearts. The men have gone to fight and the women are left to tend to their homes and land —this new way of life is one that is still inextricably tied to their southern heritage. 

Everything changes when one of the young ladies, Amy (Oona Laurence), discovers a wounded Union soldier, John McBurny (Collin Farrell) while collecting mushrooms in the woods. Amy offers to assist McBurny, but even he is reluctant to leave his resting place until he knows where he is going; life in the outside world has become so dire that sitting wounded in the woods is better than going further into the unknown. Amy earnestly helps McBurny back to the Seminary, and despite their reservations about harboring an enemy soldier, the ladies decide to help McBurny out of the goodness of their Christian hearts. It isn’t before long when sexual tensions and jealousies start to arise, and McBurny’s presence becomes more trouble for the ladies than he bargained for.

For the Farnsworth ladies, McBurny’s presence becomes a call back to their respective lives before the war started. For the elder ladies — Martha, and teacher Edwina (Kirsten Durnst) — McBurny represents the yearning for a world that isn’t dominated by the cold realities of war. Both ladies are seen fighting their primal urges to embrace a presence they have long been bereft of, but in their current situation they are bound to their circumstances and fight the urge to accept him. For the other ladies ranging in ages from very young to late teens, McBurny’s presence is something new, excited and also annoying. Each of them is seen responding to McBurny’s presence in their own respective ways. This is where the premise of the film lies: The Beguiled takes a national event and forces it into the background while showing how far a group of women can be pushed as they are inextricably bound to the threat of their environment — McBurny’s presence in the Farnsworth Seminary.  

The Beguiled expertly shows how conflict can arise in a single location. Although the ladies of the seminary were getting on with some sense of normalcy, the inclusion of McBurny into their lives introduced major points of conflict. The life they built within the seminary is thus threatened and the film’s premise is made abundantly clear. In an era where independent filmmaking is a venture anyone can embark on, using one location is a way to save on production costs while making the setting its own functioning character. In The Beguiled, the Farnsworth Seminary serves as a representation of the characters’ inner-most conflicts, while also functioning as a space that forces these characters’ to reveal these conflicts. Each character is inextricably tied to the fate of the Farnsworth Seminary and the film’s genius lies in how the characters vie to preserve it.

 

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