The Beguiled May 8, 2017
Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher (2001), a spinster of a music instructor fantasizes about rape and sadomasochism until her twisted fetishes become part of her reality.
Don Siegel’s The Beguiled (1971), adapted from the 1966 Thomas P. Cullinan novel A Painted Devil, is no exception. A psychosexual drama in which femininity is a caged bird yearning to flap its wings, it finds its sexuality buried under the weight of the conservative Deep South at the height of the Civil War. Set in an all-female boarding school in Mississippi, the film (and its female characters) hovers around John McBurney (Clint Eastwood), a Union soldier left for dead in the backwoods. His life saved by Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), a 12-year-old student at the academy, McBurney is brought in and taken care of by the headmaster, Martha Farnsworth (a superb Geraldine Page), and the teacher, Edwina Dabney (Elizabeth Hartman).
Everyone immediately takes a liking to the man, though not in the ways you’d come to be fond of a particularly friendly neighbor. McBurney inadvertently becomes an object of sexual desire for nearly all the women living at the school, even the youngest of the girls fixated with him in ways they wouldn’t be with their father.
Imprudently, McBurney wallows in the female attention and starts to toy with the emotions of the women looking after him, making romantic promises to several. But by doing this he essentially signs a death note: it doesn’t take long for enough psyches to be thrown into a tailspin to turn him into something of a prisoner.
Released shortly before Dirty Harry, the crime drama which would solidify Eastwood’s status as Hollywood’s most cartoonishly rugged leading man, The Beguiled wasn’t a hit upon release, likely because distributors weren’t exactly sure how to market the feature and because it showcases Eastwood in a role not comprehensively heroic. He’s a slab of hardened masculinity per usual, but this time around he’s slimier, less considerate of the people he’s manipulating.
Resulting is one of his finest performances, not necessarily because his characterization is marked by anything drastic, but because the film itself seems to work as an allegory for Eastwood’s famed womanizing, with accidental self-reference abounding. Eastwood locks into the seedier aspects of the role, and the way victimhood becomes him is an interesting development. It’s a rarity to see him not as the old-fashioned hero John Wayne perfected in his heyday. Eastwood excels in the part.
But most compelling about the The Beguiled is the way it admixes the tragedies of repression with sexual jealousy and infatuation and exploits the horrors found within them once they’re shaken and stirred. I suppose it’s even something of a cautionary tale: wrong one woman and you’re in trouble. But wrong a handful and you might as well consider yourself dead. The movie’s the nightmarish countering of the male fantasy.
It’s scintillating: this is one of the more overlooked masterpieces of the 1970s.
Fortunately, the movie seems en route to something of a revival: it was recently announced that Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation) has adapted the novel and 1971 film and will be premiering her take at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Her version headlined by Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning, it’s on track to become a modern classic. And hopefully it’s also on track to persuade viewers to look in the direction of Siegel’s feature, too. It’s unmissable. A
Jo Ann Harris
1 Hr., 45 Mins.
here’s a certain expectation that the repressing of one’s sexuality is bound to have disastrous repercussions in cinema. In Michael Powell and Emeric Pressurger’s Black Narcissus (1947), a religious drama which watches as nuns set up a church in the remote Himalayas, climaxes with one of its leading ladies going mad as a consequence of her inability to sexually connect. In Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), a young woman terrified of her erotic desires locks herself away in her sister’s apartment and, hallucinations and delusions aiding her, kills any man who dares let his presence be known to her. And in