Don Siegel’s The Beguiled hadn’t ever entered my radar before recent remake news – nothing like Sofia Coppola announcing a new project to pique my interest. The female cast makes it all the more enticing: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning. Yes please!
The original star Clint Eastwood is one I have always been mostly chilly to, so on the surface it’s plain to see why I hadn’t sought the film out prior to the Hit Me With Your Best Shot assignment. The film also was released in the same year as Siegel and Eastwood’s next collaboration Dirty Harry, so that maybe explains how it’s skipped in the history books.
The oversight is a shame on a few fronts. Firstly, the boarding school setting provides excellent fodder for some delightful actressing. While the always flawless Geraldine Page should have been enough to draw me to the film sooner, there’s also great varied work from Elizabeth Hartman, Mae Mercer, and Jo Ann Harris. Secondly, Eastwood’s mystique has rarely been used with such sexual self-awareness. His macho persona is used here as an object of lust, one he uses to his advantage to manipulate the women holding him captive.
But the thirst each of these women have for Eastwood’s McBee is a prison of its own, a reminder of the limitations placed upon their gender during this binary Civil War time. It’s not just the shame of lust, but the promise of some kind of primal freedom against the strictures of being a proper lady. Visually, the women are often obscured, particularly when facing the prospects of McBee’s manipulative proclamations. He’s more a mirror of their own culturally imposed limitations than a potential rescuer.
The film is shockingly director of photography Bruce Surtees’s first, quite sensual and emotionally attuned for a first effort. You can see much of the same eye he granted to follow-ups (and Eastwood starring) Play Misty for Me and Dirty Harry, Establishing an aesthetic here organically. The Beguiled is the most luridly visual of the three, guided by the sexuality that is constantly brimming over the surface.
The imagined orgy sequence is perhaps the most entrancing in the film, as suggestive but unprofane as McBee’s flirtations. For all of its titillations, the fantasy is also ghoulish – like having a sex dream that’s slowing morphing into a nightmare. That kinky and disturbing tone is a fascinating portrayal of how these cloistered women view the prospect of sexual congress: enticing, stimulating, but fundamentally deviant.
There has increasingly been the threat of brutality and sexual violence upon the women as the war comes dangerously closer to the plantation. McBee’s wounded intrusion contrasts against the gruff salaciousness of other potential rapists, but he has weasled and contorted them all sexually for his own interests too. Hasn’t McBee manipulated them sexually all the same, or is he absolved for trying to save his own skin? The mounting sexual tensions and threat of the war outside build to the film’s Best Shot:
A wicked and simple shot: McBee has been the surrogate for the women’s sexual longings, but now he finally experiences their collective violence. The camera is nauseated throughout the sequence, dizzying between the fraught reactions of the women. Page is focused, her shadow behind her as the frame disembodies her from the act, as if it could be any of the women performing the act. It’s a loaded mix of her stringent maternal instincts, anger in sexual deceit, vengeance for opposition in war, rage against predatory men, wartime survivalism – a dramatic frame with the stain of blood.
The shot itself is as captivating and off-putting as anything in the film, a shocking build to its most conflicting moment for the audience. Admit it: you want to know what this kind of violence looks like when directed by Sofia Coppola.
More of Hit Me With Your Best Shot!