Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Beguiled

dir. Don Siegel

“…and we could prepare them especially for him.”

KALEN EGAN, Los Angeles
February 28, 2007 - DVD

Here is a film so ahead of its time that even today it feels like something relevant, wise and alien. Yet it is equally locked into and cogent about its own era, and also manages to be intriguing in its depiction of history. Set during the end of the civil war, The Beguiled aims its thematic guns on nothing less than the clash between national red and national blue, depicting the worst of both worlds in a battle for American supremacy. At the same time, it envisions men as salacious, liberal liars, and women as conservative, repressed rage-machines, and in doing so anticipates centuries of harbored, built-up animosity between the two sexes. Shit, this is one cy
nical little monster, and one of the great social terror pictures of the 60’s and 70’s, hanging right beside classics like Don't Look Now and, especially, Rosemary’s Baby. Like that film, The Beguiled embraces metaphor over plot and logic, and builds toward a calculated leap off Lunatic Ledge. It’s never as bracingly scary as either of those aforementioned movies, but I think it's more sharply satiric, and no doubt much funnier.

Clint Eastwood plays Corporal John McBurny, a yankee soldier who is shot out of a tree and blown up, then discovered and rescued by a 12-year-old girl (“Old enough for kissin’.”) named Amy. Instantly seduced by his forwardness and rugged sex appeal, Amy brings the war-ravaged John to her nearby boarding school, which is populated by six or seven other women. As John recuperates from his injuries, he single-mindedly sets to charming the skirts off as many of the house’s females as possible. Foremost among these ladies is the school’s headmistress, Martha Farnsworth, played with a cool mix of austerity and longing by Geraldine Page. Why is John so determined to collect all of their individual affections? And why are they so eager to give in to him? Who, in the end, is manipulating whom? Or, hold it… is anybody really manipulating anybody?

See, the great comedy of this whole scenario, it turns out, is that John and these women are utterly compatible in their collective desires, yet they’ll never be able to acknowledge that fact. In one of the movie’s most alarming and insightful scenes, Martha actually fantasizes about a three-way orgy involving John, herself and the house’s etiquette teacher (who has also fallen head over heels for the wounded soldier, and who might be the only reasonably sane, moderate person in the house; of course, her simple wants will eventually crumble under the weight of everyone else's selfish desire). And throughout his experience in the house, John seems determined to keep each of his seductions secret, as if it’s just more rewarding to feel like he’s getting away with something. In both cases, they’re just looking for kinky sex with “the enemy,” and if they could only sit down and admit it to each other, everyone would probably be better off.

The women are the product of stern, religious-minded morality, and John represents unbridled desire and self-interest; these traits are hyperbolic extremes of the political right and left, respectively, and of women and men, and it’s a credit to Don Siegel’s even-handed humor that the scales don’t ultimately tip in any one direction. Nearly everyone here is equally weird and destructive, and as the film ends—with the North beginning to claim its victory over the South—we sense a definite time-bomb already starting to tick. The South will indeed rise again, and then slip again, and then rise, and then slip…

It’s so exciting to me that a film from 1971 could see this phenomenon as a perpetual give and take, a battle destined to wage for a long, long time, and perhaps serve as the defining characteristic of this particular country—a struggle between unrestricted freedom and self-imposed oppression.

But give us a fuckin’ break, Kalen, this isn’t really a political film. It’s one where Clint Eastwood gets his leg chopped off by a bunch of angry girls. Indeed, The Beguiled is a movie that keeps its relevance buried inside, to be mined afterward, and during its 105 minutes glides along on a consistent stream of enthralling madness. Few films are confident enough in their craft and concept to go all the way over the edge, and this is one that gets away with each of its nutso indulgences. The intermittent voice overs, the arty/trashy dissolves, the gore, the ever-more over-the-top performances, etc. All good, all entertaining, all relevant to the central idea.

In short, this is a movie that proves unequivocally that the best and most memorable way to inspire thought and conversation is by mashing it into pulp, and serving it to the viewer like a bowl of tasty, poisonous wild mushrooms. Once you watch, you’ll never get it out of your system, and the country surrounding you might seem just a little more violent and hopelessly absurd.

Click the film's title at the top of this article, and buy the movie for $6.05! I'm not getting any kickback off this recommendation, it's just... could you ask for a better deal than that?!

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