Friday, 8 July 2011

Bittersweet and Strange

By Leslie McMurtry

GASTON:  Lefou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking—
LEFOU: A dangerous pastime—
GASTON:                                I know.

It’s hard to believe this year is the twentieth anniversary of what I consider the best animated Disney film of all time, Beauty and the Beast.  It was the first animated film to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination, and while I didn’t appreciate this at the time (I was only 7!) and it hasn’t always been my favorite, with the years its appeal hasn’t waned.

“Beauty and the Beast,” referred to in anthropological folk-text study as Ǻarne-Thompson folktale type 425C, may first have seen the literary light of day with Apuleius’ The Golden Ass from the first century CE.  The version most of us know is by Madame Leprince de Beaumont, an eighteenth-century moral tale to prepare young girls for successfully navigating marriage.  It’s amazing that Disney had not tackled the story before 1991 in its pantheon of classic folk and fairy tales.  I contend their version was much influenced by Robin McKinley’s 1978 novel Beauty whose strong, bookish, compassionate heroine turns much of the received wisdom of the folk and literary tale on its head. 

The Disney Beauty and the Beast involves a spell placed on a cruel young prince (Robby Benson), transforming him into a beast and causing his castle to be concealed and his servants to turn into objects.  He has ten years to make a woman fall in love with him if he wants to reverse the curse.  Meanwhile, in a nearby village, an inventor named Maurice sets off into the forest.  When he is kidnapped by the Beast, his daughter Belle (Paige O’Hara) must rescue him.  In trading places with her father, she begins to see behind the Beast’s forbidding façade.  However, the village’s egotistical hunter Gaston (Richard White) wants to make Belle his wife at all costs. 

BatB is different from its nearest stylistic predecessor, The Little Mermaid, though both tales are taken from literary sources.  The Little Mermaid is situated in a true fairy tale kingdom; BatB is recognizably set in a provincial French village, some time in the eighteenth century.  Various clues would lead me to believe it’s around the time of French Revolution.  Credence is lent to this theory when thinking of the story’s climax.  The enchanted castle has lain hidden from the villagers’ memory for at least ten years, which suggests a distant monarchy with no taxing powers—so far, the villagers would be surviving much better than their counterparts around Paris who would be spurred into action by a bad harvest.  However, in “The Mob Song,” Gaston foments the villagers to storm the castle, their motive to protect themselves and take revenge on the Beast (“we don’t like / what we don’t / understand, in fact it scares us”)—though of course no one could be convinced to take action when Maurice asked for help to rescue Belle.  By the time the raging mob, armed with axes, shovels, knives, and pitchforks, reaches the castle, their objective has changed to pillaging; after all, “fifty Frenchmen can’t be wrong”!

Furthermore, there is just enough of a suggestion that Anglomanie has filtered down to the country:  the characters of Mrs Potts and Cogsworth are interpreted to be English, suggesting this is slightly before the Revolution.  Certainly Mrs Potts and her china brethren are out of place in France—besides, drinking black tea with milk and sugar would not have been the done thing (Madame de la Sablière may have one to popularize tea with milk).  What a coup for the writers and producers of BatB to come upon the idea of Enchanted Objects to aid and abet the Beast.  Traditionally, the good and magical spirits in the Beast’s castle were unseen whispers, which is no good for animation.  Instead, these characters really do shine in a charming manner (as well as being eminently marketable):  louche footman Lumière the candelabra, fussy butler Cogsworth, the French maid feather duster, and motherly housekeeper Mrs Potts and her son Chip.    

There is a Facebook group I belong to called “I’D MARRY THE BEAST FOR THAT LIBRARY!”  Visually, the Beast’s library in BatB is stunning and calls to mind the mini-museums Italian aristocrats of the Renaissance would cultivate.  By the eighteenth century, the novel was still a relatively new form of writing, so the townspeople’s bewilderment and disapproval of Belle’s obsession with them is understandable.   One wonders what kind of books she has been able to borrow in the village and how they got there in the first place.  Is it surprising that she knows how to read at all?  In previous versions of the story (including McKinley’s), Beauty’s family is a wealthy merchant one (and she has two sisters) whose consumerist lifestyle is destroyed, forcing the family to move in penury to a distant village.  This would seem a critique of the bourgeoisie (this is certainly the feeling I get from the Faerie Tale Theatre version with Susan Sarandon as Beauty).  It is far from clear how long Belle and Maurice have been living in the village or if they ever enjoyed a better standard of life.  Maurice’s inventions suggest this, but Belle’s yearning for acceptance and independence is inspired more by parochial suffocation than missing a former mode of living.

Another element the Disney version neatly adapts for its own purposes is the rose.  In the literary tale, the father journeys back to the city in the hope of regaining his fortunes.  He comes backs sadly deceived, but on the way spends the night at an enchanted castle.  Motivated by Beauty’s humble request of a rose for a gift, he tries to take it—enraging the Beast who had so freely given his hospitality.  In BatB, the Beast’s plight is symbolized by an enchanted, ever-blooming rose which loses petals the longer the enchantment lasts.  In the literary story, Beauty leaves the Beast and he pines for her, near to death; in BatB, the newly-smitten Beast grants Belle her wish of seeing her father even though he knows the ten years are swiftly approaching.  It is a strong visual element that heightens the tension and seems to have influenced the Phantom of the Opera phenomenon (see Susan Kay’s 1992 book Phantom and the 2004 film). 

I have always admired Belle, as she’s one of the few Disney “princesses” who is not actually a princess (whether she’s nouveau-riche is a point discussed above).  Her loyalty is to her father; she is courageous, kind-hearted, and intelligent.  Though the other characters maintain “her head’s up on some cloud,” she must have some practical abilities to keep her and her father from starvation; she doesn’t balk at the thought of going chasing after her father into the dark forest; she even maintains outward calm upon pledging herself to the Beast and only cries when she thinks she’s alone.  She repulses Gaston long before she knows there’s an alternative.  She even serves as a Henry Higgins to the Beast’s Eliza Doolittle, teaching him to act like a human being.

The idea of immaturity is an interesting one in BatB.  One of the film’s notorious goofs[1] is that the prince must have been 11 years old if the spell can be broken until he’s 21 and the Enchanted Objects have been rusting for 10.  While it’s not impossible that an 11-year-old should have been submitted to the Enchantress’ test, it seems a bit unsporting.  Of course, the Beast’s temper tantrums and lack of knowledge about the world are admissible if he’s been living off the example of Enchanted Objects from childhood.  (Can you imagine his developmental psychology?)  Belle seems by far the most mature character of the story.  Her father, while good-intentioned and clearly intelligent enough to invent steam-powered objects, seems a bit helpless.  Gaston is a real man-child; his interest in Belle is purely in the decorative, and all his bravado barely conceals his truly cruel and barbaric nature.  Yet, he is reckoned to be the “handsome” man with many of the heroic traits other Disney princes share.  (As the ultimate irony, Richard White originated the role of the Phantom in the Yeston/Kopit musical version of Phantom.) 

However, like Bluebeard’s wives, Belle’s singular fault is her curiosity.  Her desire to know what the Beast is “hiding” overpowers both her better judgment and her innate compassion.  By visiting the forbidden West Wing, Belle conforms more than ever to the mould of an eighteenth century Gothic horror heroine.  Their minds were certainly taken up by romances.  The Beast’s lair which she enters contains no dead wives, but it’s like looking into the embodied version of the Beast’s mind.  The tatters and ruins conceal one table that has not been destroyed; the prince’s portrait has been razed by a self-pitying Beast in a hint of Dorian Grey.  There is an enchanted mirror in BatB with functionally magical purposes, and in perhaps the most arresting scene of the entire movie, Belle walks past a shattered mirror which reflects her in all its shards.  Julia Kristeva, I think, would have much to link this with Mrs Radcliffe’s books, though the music in this scene sounds lifted from Säens-Saint’s “Carnival of the Animals.” 

Belle is one of the rare storybook heroines who saves the men in her life.  Certainly the Beast fends off a pack of starving wolves intent on eating Belle and her horse, but she rescues her father and sets the Beast free from his curse.  I remember as a little girl being rather disappointed when the Beast transformed into the grown-up Prince; there was a campaign on the internet called “Turn him back!” which also seemed to prefer the Beast as he was.  Certainly the complexity of “Beauty and the Beast” has inspired and obsessed since at least when I was 7, and this film has had a huge part in that.  But if obsession causes us to think, then unlike Gaston and Lefou, I don’t think it’s a dangerous pastime at all.  

[1] Another is, if Chip is younger than 11 (which he seems to be when he transforms back into a human at the end), does that mean Mrs Potts was able to conceive while a teapot?  The answer scarcely bears thinking about!

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