20 May 2011
Fairy tales are preoccupied with subjects so weird yet familiar that it’s no wonder we’re still thinking about them. At heart they capture a child’s view of the world: full of mystery, magic, and logics wholly concealed from us. The action in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la bête, 1946) begins, for example, when Belle’s father plucks a rose to take home to his daughter — upon which the Beast suddenly appears, all fur and aristocratic clothing and that somewhat dainty overbite, to pronounce, “You could have taken anything but my roses. You stole a rose, so you must die.” Plot twists like that don’t amount to morality tales so much as remind children of the irrationality of the universe: you never know what small act might condemn you to punishment (which is exactly what childhood often feels like). Fairy tales also love to draw stark contrasts between beautiful and ugly characters. I loved Cocteau’s beautiful, weird film — it’s among the very best films I’ve seen in the past few years — and I’m fascinated by its strange messages about beauty, ugliness, and love.
Fairy tales also tend to headline female characters. No wonder, then, that female directors in particular have turned to fairy tales recently — Sleeping Beauty has been made twice in the last year (by Catherine Breillat and Julia Leigh), Rapunzel was retold for Tangled, Breillat’s brilliant, weird Bluebeard appeared a couple of years ago, and then there was that unfortunate Catherine Hardwicke version of Red Riding Hood (read Stuart Heritage’s very funny response to watching the trailer at the Guardian website). Of course, these have required significant revision for modern viewers who expect their heroines to have motives beyond a willingness to suffer prettily. Fairy tale heroines are also kind — so no one watching Beauty and the Beast will be surprised when the lovely, selfless Belle (Josette Day) takes her father’s place at the Beast’s castle, with the full expectation that he will kill her for her father’s crime of plucking that rose. But don’t get too attached to Belle, because she’s not really the star of the show.
In watching this film you overlook Belle in favor of the Beast (played by French heartthrob Jean Marais, who also appears as Belle’s sort-of suitor, Avenant, and the Prince at the end). The Beast is gorgeous, tragic, and has the most beautifully expressive eyes. We understand that the film wants to contrast Belle’s beauty with the Beast’s ugliness, but one finds oneself increasingly confused by that contrast because he’s so much more compelling and beautiful — tormented by his own demons and his growing love for the slightly colorless and indecisive Belle. He asks her to marry him every night, and every night she refuses, believing she must return to her sick father. When he grants her permission to leave on a short trip home he gives her the golden key to all his riches, telling her that it proves his eternal love, and warning her that if she does not return, he will die.
The most endearing aspect of the story comes at the conclusion, which once again deals with beauty and ugliness. To cut the plot short, Belle’s good-for-nothing brother and the rejected Avenant plot to steal the Beast’s treasure and kill him. When she realizes their trickery, she races back to the castle to save the Beast — but she has discovered her true love for him too late. He lies dying for want of her. Yet at that very moment she gazes at him, heartsick, the Beast transforms into a beautiful young prince with chiseled features in a ruff collar, smiling delightedly at her. No wonder she’s disturbed:
Belle: Where is the Beast?
Prince: He is no more. It is I, Belle. [He explains he could only be saved by a loving look.]
Belle: Can such miracles really happen?
Prince: You and I are living proof. Love can turn a man into a beast. But love can also make an ugly man handsome. [She looks at him skeptically.] What’s wrong, Belle? it’s almost as if you miss my ugliness.
Of course she misses the Beast. This new grinning, self-important prettyboy has presented himself to her, and appears so pleased with his own attractiveness that it alters their relationship. We miss the Beast, too. The tale’s message proves elusive. Surely we were supposed to learn that looks don’t matter; but now that I think about it, the story features a character named Belle who falls in love with a beast, only to find him transformed into a French movie star. You see: it tells us that looks really matter.
I could go on — there’s so much to be said about the Beast’s castle, which Cocteau fills with disembodied arms that hold candelabras or pour one’s wine, doors that open on their own, and marble busts with eyes that open and heads that swivel. But ultimately I think it’s a film about beauty and ugliness — topics crucial to the little girls who read fairy stories and imagine undying love and princes and castles. Now, if only we had fairy tales about perfectly ordinary-looking girls.