Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête

I just watched Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête again, after I did a careful study of the Mme de Villeneuve and the Mme de Beaumont versions of the “Beauty and the Beast” story. And I’m afraid I have to admit to being a philistine. It’s sad but true: I prefer the Disney movie over Cocteau. Now, some of that might be sheer snarkiness – I’ve been told Cocteau is quality, and Disney is not; told to study Cocteau over Disney; so I go “Hmph!” and set out to find fault with Cocteau. See, I really love the Disney Beauty and the Beast – it’s probably the only Disney cartoon of which I can say that unabashedly (I also really like Enchanted, but that’s a cartoon/live-action mix and pretty much a parody, so not quite in the same category). So if my favourite is being put down in comparison with another, I’m inclined to be prejudiced against that other.

Okay, backing up a bit: saying I set out to find fault with Cocteau isn’t quite true. It’s more like I watched with a critical eye, not entirely ready to be charmed. And there’s no doubt about it: Cocteau’s movie is a masterpiece of film making. It’s very much an “art” film, very beautiful, ethereal, and deep. It was shot right after the end of the war, just after the Nazi occupation of France ended, and they were up against a lot of difficulties – even simple things like procuring enough materials for the set, which would have been unimaginable even for American film makers of the day, let alone today’s studios. That material and financial shortage was also responsible for the film’s being shot in black-and-white; they just couldn’t afford colour. Personally, I find that’s part of the difficulty I have with the movie – there are short bits of scenes where I don’t get what I’m seeing, the visuals don’t make sense. Black-and-white movies are, to me, dated classics; I find it hard to get into them, to really identify with the characters. The same goes, in this case, for the mise en scène, the setting. The male lead, Jean Marais, who plays the Beast, the Prince, and Beauty’s rejected suitor Avenant, is just too pretty for me, in that 40s style of extremely polished handsomeness, blond hair waves set just so, square jaw being oh-so-square (I also don’t admire Cary Grant the way I doubtlessly should, for the same reason). And Josette Day, who is fantastically beautiful, is just so, so – I don’t know, ethereal? Just a bit too much for me. However, that’s entirely my personal taste, not proper criticism. As is my dislike for the gothic – and this movie is nothing if not gothic. Beauty eerily drifts through long corridors with white curtains wafting at her; the Beast alternately smolders (literally – he’s got smoke rising from the ends of his fingers when he really gets the hots for Beauty), looks creepy with a blood-smeared mouth after a kill, and pathetic; disembodied arms hold up candelabra along yet more endless corridors; there are animated faces in the fireplace surround rolling their eyes at Beauty as she paces, waiting for the Beast to come. And all of that is set to the dissonance of a score which kind of sets your nerves on edge – well, at least it does for me. Add to that that the whole thing is just so slow. Both Beauty and the Beast just waft about, moving slowly, gracefully in her case, stiffly and awkwardly in his – he looks like a guy walking in plate armour; I’m not sure if that’s intentional, or the effect of being in very heavy makeup. And that’s the other thing about him – his looks. There isn’t really a whole lot you can do with a man playing a beast, you’re pretty much stuck with a mask or makeup. Well, to me, he looks like Chewbacca with fangs, which I don’t find all that attractive. I know there are many who would strenuously disagree with me; I’ve read more than one account of this movie by women who find Jean Marais’ Beast incredibly sexy (Marina Warner is one, in an article printed in my DVD insert booklet, and Alex Flinn, who wrote Beastly, is another).

Cocteau credits Mme de Beaumont as his hyptotext. And he certainly sticks quite closely to her version of the tale – two wickedly jealous sisters and all, full Cinderella-style. But one thing I’ve never seen anyone mention is that Cocteau was obviously also quite familiar with Mme de Villeneuve’s version. For example, the horse that’s in the movie is lifted right from the pages of de Villeneuve, but never appears in de Beaumont. In the film, the Beast puts Beauty’s father on a white horse by the name of Magnifique, which takes him straight home, and arrives again later to collect Beauty. In de Beaumont, he rides his own horse home; but in de Villeneuve, he is given a “magnificent horse” which takes him home and back to the castle, while his own horse has to find its own way. Now, as I mentioned before, I don’t know French, but I think there’s some resemblance between a magic horse named Magnifique and “un cheval magnifique” which happens to be magic, no? Another possible nod to de Villeneuve might be that Beauty’s sisters ask the father for a parrot and a monkey, which are exactly the kinds of pets Beauty gets in the Beast’s castle (de Beaumont leaves out the monkeys, though she does keep the parrots). Also, de Villeneuve makes a much bigger deal out of Beauty having lots of other suitors; I would be surprised if the character of Avenant wasn’t at least in part inspired by them. One more thing, and I didn’t come up with this idea myself, is that Cocteau also borrowed from another fairy tale writer, Mme d’Aulnoy: the disembodied hands serving Beauty in the Beast’s castle are taken straight from d’Aulnoy’s fairy tale “The White Cat” (La Chatte Blanche), which is a reverse “Beauty and the Beast” (a prince ends up in an enchanted castle and falls in love with a white cat, who turns out to be a princess). So, in other words, Cocteau didn’t just stick to Mme de Beaumont, he freely borrowed from other writers.

And then he made up some stuff himself (I think), and that’s where it gets quite surreal. What’s with that “Diana’s temple” thing? Briefly, the Beast explains to Beauty that he holds all he has by magic (because, you know, being a talking beast is totally un-magical), and that all his wealth lies in this little temple of Diana on the grounds of the castle, which he is not allowed to enter. He gives the key to Beauty. When she goes to visit her family, she tells her brother and his friend Avenant about this. They steal the key, and then go after the Beast to kill him and rob the treasure (the prototype of Gaston in the Disney version). They decide against using the key (so what was the point of the thing in the first place?!?) and just bust in through the glass roof, whereupon Avenant gets shot by the statue of Diana in this temple – right at the moment when the Beast is dying in Beauty’s arms a few hundred metres away. The arrow hits Avenant, and he turns into the Beast and dies – and the Beast, right then, transforms into the Prince (all played by the same actor, I’ll have you remember). Umm – I don’t get it… It’s not Beauty’s love that transforms him, but his rival being shot by Diana? And the rival is now the dead Beast? And what’s Diana doing in the story all of a sudden, anyway? I’m sorry, that’s just a little to surreal for me.

The other thing I have a hard time buying is rather a key point – I have difficulties believing the love story. Not, as I’ve mentioned, finding the Beast terribly attractive myself, I can’t see what Beauty sees in him, and Cocteau never develops their relationship. Where de Villeneuve and de Beaumont tell of Beauty’s increasing attraction to the Beast, and Disney shows it with library scenes and snowball fights, Cocteau – well, doesn’t. There doesn’t seem to be much that changes about either of them, that gives a reason for why Beauty should love the Beast now, when she found him repulsive before. There just isn’t enough to hold my interest in the story the way Cocteau tells it. But then, as I said, that’s mostly personal taste – being a philistine and all, not appreciating surrealist films telling gothic stories.

Maybe I’ll go watch my favourite Belle and Beast waltzing while Angela Lansbury sings “Tale As Old As Time” now. It won an academy award.

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Beauty and the Beast

“Beauty and the Beast” holds a special place in the lineup of fairy tales I’m studying right now: my first introduction to it was the Disney movie. All the others – “Cinderella”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and “The Frog Prince” – were childhood favourites of mine (well, maybe not favourites, exactly, except for SB, but I knew them well), but this one I only got to know after I came to Canada. The same goes for “Bluebeard”, so it must be that we just didn’t have any books of French fairy tales around when I was growing up. We had Grimms, Andersen, Arabian Nights, Hauff (another German Romantic, contemporary with the Grimms), a collection of Animal Tales, and probably a few others, but apparently no Frenchmen. Or, as it were, Frenchwomen.

“Beauty and the Beast” is a woman’s tale, and is one of the prime examples of the genuine “literary fairy tale”. The first version was written in 1740 by one Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, and it’s not your simple Grimms’ style five-page fairy tale. In the translation I’m reading, included in Jack Zipes’ Beauties, Beasts and Enchantment: Classic French Fairy Tales, it’s just under eighty pages long; I’ve heard it referred to as a “novel” and someplace it said it was 250 pages. Now, I don’t think Zipes abridged his translation, so maybe it was just smaller pages or larger print or something; but suffice to say, it’s a LONG story. The best-known version is a much shorter retelling by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont which came out in 1756 (the first English translation was done in 1757, according to the Wikipedia).

De Beaumont’s story is a lot like de Villeneuve’s, except that it only tells one half of the tale, the part that’s now known. Hmm, haven’t we heard that one before? Except that in the case of “La belle et la bête” the extended version is nowhere near as gruesome as in “Sleeping Beauty”. It’s just, kind of, boring, in the TMI sense. You see, the prince has a mother, and the mother has a brother, and there was a wicked babysitter who happened to be a fairy and a king who married a shepherdess, except she was a fairy too, and it’s all to do with what happened years ago when they were all really young, and… What’s it got to do with Beauty and the Beast? Not all that much, actually; or, more to the point, by the time it is told you really don’t care a whole lot because the real story, the one about the girl and the animal, is finished. I guess nobody told Mme de Villeneuve that you shouldn’t introduce people into the plot really late in the book; if they matter, they have to show up in the first few chapters. At least that’s what fiction writers are told today.

Anyway, quick recap of the story as we know it: there’s a merchant, and he’s got a passel of kids – even split, 50/50 between boys and girls (in Villeneuve it’s six each, in Beaumont three), whose mother seems to have gone to her eternal reward, she’s never mentioned. His business goes bad, and they become poor. The daughters are ticked off and don’t want to accept that fact, all but the youngest, who is, of course, the most beautiful and therefore called Beauty (d’uh). She’s also the nicest of the lot and the only one willing to do any work for the family. Now, daddy goes on a trip, hoping to recoup his business losses; the sisters ask for all kinds of fancy gifts, but all Beauty wants is a rose (yes, definite shades of the Grimms’ “Cinderella” here). On the way back from his unsuccessful business trip, he gets lost in the snowy woods, and ends up in an enchanted castle, where he is helped by invisible servants (Beast has his castle fully automated, apparently; rather ahead of his time there). The next morning, he picks a rose in the garden for Beauty, which brings down the Beast on him, breathing fire (well, okay, roaring) and threatening to kill him. On hearing that he has daughters, the Beast makes a deal that if one of the daughters comes along willingly to take the merchant’s place, his life will be spared. So, as we knew would happen, Beauty is the one who offers to come along; the bitchy sisters would never do such a thing. So, now Beauty is in the Beast’s castle, fully expecting to be eaten. But instead, she finds herself welcomed, and from there on lives in the lap of luxury, waited on by the invisible servants. There is no other human being there, so she hangs around the castle by herself except for every evening at dinnertime, when the Beast shows up and talks to her, always ending his visit by asking her to marry him. She refuses repeatedly. Then one day she asks to be allowed to visit her family again; the Beast reluctantly agrees and makes her promise to come back soon, else he’ll die. She goes, and lets herself be tricked or talked into staying a bit too long; but then she has a dream about the Beast dying, and she rushes back as quickly as she can. Sure enough, her dream was real; he’s lying about somewhere in the garden, expiring for lack of Beauty. When she sees him, she either cries or dumps water on him, and makes a passionate declaration of love (or at least the willingness to marry him), which perks him right up. Not only that, it de-beastifies and re-princefies him, with fireworks and fanfares. Hurrah, marriage, happily ever after!

Well, okay, that’s how it works in Beaumont. In Villeneuve, it’s pretty much the same up to the fireworks and fanfares, but then there’s a snag. You see, the prince’s mother shows up, in company of a fairy (whom Beauty has been talking to for a while in dreams, so she’s a known quantity). And Mama Queen is not at all in favour of her darling Prince marrying a commoner, no matter how many curses the girl has broken and how much the Prince swears he’d rather be a beast and married to Beauty than a pretty-boy without his girl. Well, mama’s a royal snob. But what do know – the fairy’s got some insider info up her fluttery sleeve, which she imparts to the reader in several indeterminable and convoluted backstories. It all turns out right, because, you see, Beauty actually isn’t the merchant’s daughter, she’s a princess! (Didn’t see that one coming, did you?) Not only that, she’s the queen’s own niece! And the fairy’s niece, too! [Blah blah blah – insert fast-forwarding noise – blah blah] And the prince was cursed by his guardian, who was an ugly old fairy and wanted to shack up with him, which he wasn’t into, but now we’ve got her sorted, and Beauty’s parents (the real ones, a fairy and a king) are back together, and her foster father and his offspring get to come live at the castle. So now everybody is happy (even though nobody is who we thought they were), and we can finally have the wedding and get on with the happily ever after.

Yeah. No surprise Mme de Beaumont chopped off that last half. So, incidentally, did Andrew Lang in the version he printed in The Blue Fairy Book in 1889. He says it’s after Mme de Villeneuve, which it is – he keeps quite a few of de Villeneuve’s details which aren’t in de Beaumont – but he ends it with the breaking of the curse and the wedding. All told, I think I like that version best. It’s got some charming details, for example, every night in the Beast’s castle Beauty dreams of this handsome prince whom she falls very much in love with, and who keeps telling her not to be deceived by appearances. Her feelings for this dream boy are one of the reasons she keeps turning down the Beast’s proposals, so when she finally agrees to marry Beast, that’s a major change of heart for her. Of course, dream boy is Beast himself in his human form, so the happily ever after at the end rings that much more true.

I just wish I knew French, so I could read these stories in the original. Apparently there are a few interesting tidbits, particularly in Villeneuve, that literally get lost in translation (see SurLaLune Fairy Tales and dettoldisney on the topic). Ah well, I have to make do with what I’ve got.