not in our stars, but in ourselves
Finally – a movie about redemption through love! High time. I’d begun to despair in my own taste. Beauty and the Beast (1946) is a faithful adaptation of the French fairytale, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s simple or suitable only for children. Not that any of you would, but I just want to be sure you’re all aware of the serious street cred this movie has among art-house cinephiles. A fairytale it may be, but it’s a visually stunning, lushly romantic fairytale that’s about much more than just an enchanted castle and a magic spell. All the best fairytales are, obviously.
You all know the story, no doubt, thanks to the kind people at Disney – but for the sake of being thorough: Belle (Josette Day) is the most devoted daughter of three to a ruined merchant. He hears that his ship has literally come in, and the family is all abuzz that their fortunes have returned at last. Belle’s selfish sisters request fine dresses, jewels, and exotic pets; all Belle asks her father to bring home with him is a rose. Father gets lost on his way home from the port, and finds himself in a strange, seemingly animated castle.
He wanders out into the garden, sees some beautiful roses, and thinks that he can at least return home with a gift for Belle. Not so: as soon as he picks an especially large and beautiful rose, the Beast (Jean Marais) leaps out and roars at the father for daring to steal his roses – the only things he possesses that he really cares about. He says that the father must pay with his own life, or else send one of his three daughters to take his place. Belle volunteers, of course, and arrives at the enchanted castle atop a white horse named Le Magnifique. The Beast is rather taken with her, and asks her every night to marry him. She is repulsed by his appearance, but soon understands that he has a heart of gold. Her nasty sisters and dissolute brother try to take advantage of the Beast’s wealth, and get what’s coming to them; Belle gets a handsome prince and a new life as a queen. I do so love a happily-ever-after, don’t you?
One of the great strength of this fabulous version of Beauty and the Beast, I think, is that director Jean Cocteau was not only a poet and artist – but a Surrealist, in sympathy if not always in practice. What better setting for the dreamworld of Surrealism than a fairytale? What better way to create an enchanted castle than with long, dark corridors lit by seemingly human arms bearing candelabras? Surrealism is often meant to be a jarring artistic experience, but in Beauty and the Beast, that dream logic is perfectly woven into the story. And beautifully, too.
I’m not sufficiently qualified as an art historian (not qualified at all, in fact) to delve much deeper into the whys and wherefores of Surrealism, but I will include this musing from your favorite Master and mine, Alfred Hitchcock: “And surrealism? Wasn’t it born as much from the work of Poe as from that of Lautréamont? This literary school certainly had a great influence on cinema […]. An influence that I experienced myself, if only in the dream sequences and the sequences of the unreal in a certain number of my films.” I’m sure I’ll have more cause to let Hitch toot his own art-snob horn later – but for now, let’s focus on that idea of Surrealism owing a great debt to fantastical writers like Edgar Allan Poe. Poe specialized in dream logic, and of course it’s not something he made up. He was fluent in it, and made great use of it, and consistently turned it into terrifying nightmare logic in his work; but of course, fairytales of all sorts have employed dream logic for as long as they’ve existed. A beautiful princess pricks her finger, falls asleep for one hundred years, and is awakened by true love’s kiss. A king wishes for terrific wealth, and turns everything he touches to gold. A wolf eats and attires himself as a little girl’s grandmother, to try to eat her too. A fussy princess can feel a pea under dozens of mattresses. A brother and a sister find a gingerbread house in the woods, and also find a cannibalistic witch inside.
You get the idea: they’re weird, dreamy stories.
And yet, they all have something more to them – something more than mere tales of imaginary royals in made-up kingdoms, with fairy attendants and singing animals. Dreams may be uniformly surreal, but they’re always saying something about us and what we want, who we are. That’s not news to anyone – but I think that Beauty and the Beast is extraordinary for, among other reasons, its ideal union of dream-imagery from Surrealism and from fairytales themselves. It’s not merely a product of the twentieth century: it’s as timeless as the fairytale itself.