Last month, Sofia Coppola became the second woman ever in the 70-year history of the Cannes Film Festival to win Best Director for her film The Beguiled—an honor that was widely applauded as progress for the movie industry, especially given the film’s much talked about female gaze. (Not to mention that the award was presented at a festival where, after seeing all 20 of its films in competition, jury member Jessica Chastain’s biggest takeaway was that the films' collective representation of women onscreen was “quite disturbing.”)
It's a little surprising, then, that The Beguiled in fact barely passes the Bechdel test. To review, quickly: In order to pass the Bechdel test, a movie must feature (1) at least two women in it (2) those women talk to each other (3) they talk about something other than a man. More surprising still is that until her interview with GQ this week, Coppola had never heard of the test, responding to an interviewer's questions about it with, “What’s that?”
“I guess I never studied film,” Coppola, whose father is of course Francis Ford Coppola, added. “That's so funny, but there are a lot of women talking about a man in this.”
Coppola is right on that count: The film lasts all of about two minutes before it is entirely consumed by the presence of a wounded Union soldier, who takes up residence in a Civil War-era all-girls boarding school helmed by Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst. From then on, it plays host to constant sexual tension, including a daringly flirtatious Elle Fanning.
The Beguiled is actually a remake. Coppola recast the male-centric 1971 version starring Clint Eastwood with her usual leading ladies, and rewrote it to tell the story from their perspective. Though the movie sets out to focus on the women, their isolation during the Civil War, and their objectification of a man, played by a dashing Colin Farrell, his presence eventually consumes the narrative.
In short, The Beguiled passes the Bechdel test, but let's agree that it does not do so with flying colors. And how does the rest of Coppola's filmography fare? Let's see.
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Coppola's feature-length debut re-engineered Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel—which had a chorus of teenage boys tell the story of the five sisters at its center—so that Kirsten Dunst and co. actually narrate things from their POV. So far, so good, despite the fact that their mother, Mrs. Lisbon, doesn’t seem to have a first name.
Lost in Translation (2003)
A relationship between a young 20-something played by Scarlett Johansson and a middle-aged actor played by Bill Murray grows intensely close, though never overtly romantic. Johansson and Anna Faris make small talk, though unspoken tension about a man (Giovanni Ribisi) hangs over their chatter. We'll give it a pass, but on a technicality.
Marie Antoinette (2006)
History made it easy for Coppola when it came this historical drama about France's empowered though ill-fated former ruler, played by Dunst. Solid pass.
Of all of Coppola's films, Somewhere comes the closest to flunking the Bechdel test. The film features Stephen Dorff as an actor living at the Chateau Marmont who is struggling to connect with his 11-year-old daughter, played by Fanning—and only passes the test if you count a strained conversation between Fanning’s character and a woman Dorff’s character sleeps with that briefly touches on scooters.
The Bling Ring (2013)
Coppola's last feature-length release before The Beguiled tells the real-life story of a group of teens who robbed celebrity homes with a cast of almost entirely female actors. (Even if Coppola was criticized for whitewashing the cast—a criticism that's plagued her over the course of her career.)
Basically, all of this goes to support Chastain's argument at Cannes: "When we include more female storytellers, we will have more of the women that [we] recognize in our day-to-day life—ones that are proactive, [that] have their own agency, [that] don't just react to the men around them. They have their own point of view." In other words, a movie made by a woman will more often than not pass the Bechdel test—even if it does so unwittingly.