monday, april 06, 2009
Beauty and the BeastUpon first viewing, Jean Cocteau's 1946 film Beauty and the Beast (La belle et la bete) is a delightful interpretation of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's version of the famous fairy tale. It appears to be an innocent diversion for any age but appearances are often deceiving.
Like it's source, Cocteau's story of Beauty (Josette Day) and her improbable lover (Jean Marais) proves to have a very deep and somewhat darker subtext when subjected to a more concentrated examination. Still, not only does it prove capable of the scrutiny, it loses none of its considerable charm as a result. Beauty and the Beast belongs to that rare category of cinema where watching the film encourages the viewer to explore the possibilities of their own imagination.
Like all great works of art, the testament of the filmmaker's craftsmanship of the filmmakers is the seeming effortlessness in telling the tale. And the delights of the film are a starting point for those who are open to perceiving its splendors. At some point, Beauty and the Beast takes willing suspension of belief and allows it to blossom into a fantastic adventure for the imagination.
At it's unvarnished core, all filmmaking is a subtle game of deceit and making something appear to be what it is not. There is a significant challenge in controlling the degrees of this deception to cast an effective spell upon a viewer. One of the reasons Beauty and the Beast succeeds so splendidly is that it creates a vivid contrast between the ordinary mundane world and the fantastic magical realm of the beast.
The opening sequence - which works wonderfully due partially to Michel Auclair's devouring of any and all available scenery as Beauty's rakish younger brother Ludovic - does much more than introduce the characters and their respective places in the story. It sets the ground rules of the "real" world in the film.
This is clear as the sisters Felicie (Mila Parely) and Adelaide (Nane Germon) prepare to go calling; they have to awaken the lazy servants, farm animals fill their unused sedan chairs and an unruly gate must be kicked open, causing one of the bearers to drop his burden, to the discomfiture of the passenger.
The viewer is presented with a world that works very much under the rules in their own. In as much as there is an assumption in the real world that the laws of physics will continue to apply, Beauty and the Beast begins by inviting a similar assumption that this will be the ground rules for the world of the film as well.
But things are about to change and when Beauty's father (Marcel Andre) enters the forest following his disastrous trip to the town, suddenly the rules of reality begin to warp and transform: gates open unassisted, lamps ignite spontaneously and statues peer curiously at goings on about them. As Cocteau begins reaching into his impressive bag of cinematic tricks to present a strange realm of magic and fantasy, the wonder of Belle's father provides an anchor for the audience.
His awestruck gaze at these fantastic occurrences is a cue for our own. No, we don't believe them, but we believe they are happening to him. This is reinforced in a very simple reaction by Belle's father when the ghostly hand pours his wine - he peers under the table to see if there is a person there. His reaction suggests there is not but, almost certainly, there was during the filming.
This conditioning prepares us for Beauty's entrance into this world which is as fantastic as the place itself - her father returned to the world as he was, she is being transformed.
Cocteau certainly intended the contrast between the two settings in Beauty and the Beast. In terms of design and cinematography the farmhouse portion was modeled on the works of Dutch painter the paintings of Jan Vermeer and the Beast's kingdom was based on the engravings of Gustave Dore.
The differences are even more apparent when there are elements of one world present in the other such as the fact gates open by themselves for the Beast's horse, Magnificent, no matter which world he is in. Yet there is a scene in the "mundane" setting that touches on the substantial illusion of the work as a whole. It's a passage that appears in Leprince de Beaumont's version of the fairy tale but Cocteau gives it an unexpected prominence in the film.
Beauty's sisters want to convince her to stay away from the beast longer than the week she had promised in the hope he will be wrathful and kill her. Incapable of feeling sorrow for their sister - and, most likely, anyone but themselves - they have to find way to project the illusion of sorrow.
They then use an onion to make themselves cry and then, with the appearance prepared, they put on an act for Beauty, pleading with her using an earnestness neither of them has ever felt for their sibling. Beauty, who believes her sisters are being sincere, is torn by grief and chooses to break her vow to Beast with terrible consequences.
While the satiation that prompted Beauty's emotional state was illusory, the feelings she experiences are very real. And, in much the same manner (but certainly not the same spirit) the filmmakers use their skills to manipulate the feelings of the viewer.
The groundwork for this scene and its apparent ontological ramifications is set in the opening sequence which is delightfully curious and even startling in its originality. An old man writes the film's credits in chalk on a black board as a man, and then a woman erases them. Who these people are and why they would be doing this is simply left unexplained. But it suggests a meta story beyond the talein the film itself.
This idea dovetails with Cocteau's surrealist sensibility and its emphasis on evoking the imagery of the unconscious. Although he disavowed the label, much of Cocteau's work fits well within the Surrealist school and Beauty and the Beast is certainly not an exception. The problem is there is a common perception of this in terms of art that can mislead grievously. While Dali's paintings and Brunel's films were certainly vivid examples of surrealism, they certainly didn't define it.
Cocteau fits well into the surrealist camp when one examines the tenets of the movement and its dedication to depicting the workings of the unconscious mind. The neglected associations, the omnipotence of dream and the disinterested play of thought, as the textbook definition put it.
And that meant an emphasis on the then-popular theory of Sigmund Freud. While the surrealists embraced the idiosyncratic aspects of his theories they had little use for his darkness of the mind - in part because much of that ground had been covered by Dada. And while much of Freud's work has fallen out of favor, the influence on aesthetic efforts like Beauty and the Beast certainly remains valid.
By the 1940 the theories of the Austrian psychiatrist had also been aimed at the Brothers Grimm. Because they are remarkably robust in imagery and symbolism, fairy tales were a natural subject for psychoanalytical interpretation.
So when Cocteau undertook his film version of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's 1756 version of the tale it was a logical confluence of his artistic interests and the growing tendency to see such stories in psychoanalytical terms. Filled with symbols such as keys, roses and mirrors, the story is a treasure trove for cinematically explicating Freud's view that sexual desire is the primary motivational energy of human life.
Freud turned to mythology as a means to bolster his theory of psychosexual development so, in an interesting way; Cocteau's film is an interesting reverse-engineering of the approach. Freud suggested the myths showed there existed a need to repress certain sexual desires until proper awareness emerged.
The beast, in this line of thinking, is a representation of the gross sexual drive that is inherent to the "id." It would be tough to come up with a better cinematic depiction of Freud's "cauldron full of seething excitations" than Cocteau's beast prowling the halls of his castle inflamed with animalistic desire. The twisted dark and mysterious forest that surrounds his domain is this same mythical territory of the unconscious traversed by Dante and little red riding hood on the start of their respective adventures.
But the Beast - despite his base nature - struggles to contain his urges much as the instinct of the id is balanced by the critical and moralizing function of Freud's "super-ego." His refinement isn't simply a facade, it is a part of who he is and part of the reason he succeeds in taming his lust.
While the balance between these two was necessary they also need to be rectified with the organized realistic part of the psyche, the "ego." Partly this is the struggle of the beast to control his animal desire and realize his romantic devotion to Beauty. In another, it's Beauty coming to terms with the base aspect of her lover and accepting it as part of him as well.
The introduction of Avenant into the story helps create a cohesiveness of meaning in the story that is invaluable for the structure of the film. It also marginalizes the importance of Beauty's father in terms of her motivations. The story is full enough of psychological import that pushing the Electra overtones to one side was probably a prudent decision.
Beauty and Avenant are not seen until they are alone and together. There is a reflection and an arrow - two items weighted with meaning that will grow in importance as the film progresses. The sexual conflict between them is established as well with Avenant trying to force himself upon her and she resisting. Later, she confesses she was in love with him despite denying his advances.
Still, it is interesting that Beauty admits she has loved the more beastly aspect and will have to "learn" to live with the more normal man he has become. It's a very interesting observation that touches on aspects of psychology and human sexuality much more subtle than the broad symbolism of the story itself.
Yet this interpretation raises some interesting questions concerning the conclusion of the film. Avenant is struck by the arrow of Diana - a Roman goddess whose toxophilite prowess is only rivaled by her vengeful chastity. It's an act that echoes back to the initial confrontation between Avenant and Beauty that led to him forcing himself upon her.
In terms of the narrative it could be read that as one curse ends, another begins. This presumes Prince Charming and Avenant - despite their similar appearance - are two distinct individuals. But on a slightly more allegorical plane - and one no less likely due to the fantastic nature of the film - it could be that they same individual and it is the beastly aspect of Avenant that is defeated (as well as Beauty's virginal aspect).
There is one interesting issue the presence of Avenant creates in the film is the question of homosexuality in all of this. The nature of Avenant's relationship with Ludovic is left somewhat vague but it is certainly a valid question given the fact the actor and the director were known to have had been in a relationship.
If the interpretation of Beast as a form of the raw sexual drive is valid - the object of desire is somewhat less important. It's as likely such an overpowering libido would be most driven to be sated rather than a proper object of desire. It's at this point interpretation of scene at Diana's pavilion and it's abundance of symbolism that can become quasi-comical if considered for overlong.
On the one hand it is an enchanting visual image of the lovers being transported to their "happily ever after" - a superb conclusion to a well-told version of the tale. Within the context of dreams, flight can be representative of liberation and, for Freud; it was distinctive hallmark of sexual release. A fitting end to the psychoanalytical odyssey the story represents.
Take your pick, both are supremely enjoyable and you can always watch it again.
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