Thursday, June 20, 2024

Fangirl Film Rambles: Beauty et la Belle

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Welcome friends to Fangirl Film Rambles!

Molly: We’ll be returning to the land of fairy tales and Disney once again dear readers! But, this time we’ll be talking about two theatrical films, only one of which is Disney. And, in a first for this series, we’ll be talking not only about a black and white film, but about a European film! Turn on those subtitles!

Now, one of these films you know and love, and history has enshrined it quite readily. And for good reason. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a genuinely great movie, for all that it spawned a terrible live-action remake, one questionable and one terrible direct to video midquel, and some questionable marketing choices. It won the Golden Globe for Best Picture-Musical or Comedy, was the first animated film ever nominated at the Oscars for Best Picture (and is thus the reason we have a Best Animated Picture category) and the New York Film Festival gave a standing ovation to an unfinished rough cut of the film.

The other one you might not know as well, but it is exceedingly influential despite that. Released in 1946, and often regarded as the kickstarter for post World War Two French cinema, La Belle et la Bête is a surrealist fairy tale with no concerns for your desire for arcs or subtlety. 

Ale: It was my first time seeing the french adaptation of the original novella by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villneuve, published in 1740 (though arguably it follows the 1756 version by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont more closely). 

I was delighted by the dreamy nature of the story, the unashamed melodramatic nature of the work, because as you know, I am a fan of quality melodrama. Even more surprising, though, was how much of Jean Cocteau’s film very obviously inspired the Disney version. 

Molly: Which is especially amusing given that the original director Disney hired for the film was going to draw from Cocteau even more heavily than the end result, but we can talk about that later.

What we know about the original

Ale: From what I read about it, the original version of the story and its reworking were both what we would today consider YA Romance novels for girls. Which makes complete sense, to be honest. 

Of course, it is a product of its time, as is the message embedded in it. Read: women must be dutiful and self-sacrificial and see past external beauty. Belle is the ultimate good because she suffers in silence, never complains about the abuses of her vain sisters, and asks nothing for herself but a token of love (a rose). At the end of the tale, she is rewarded for all these things. 

Despite all that, I think there is quite a lot in the essence of the themes that absolutely timeless. Like seeing beyond physical beauty. Then again, Leprince’s version does include Belle being a secret princess, because it would have been a travesty in 19th Century France for a plebeian to marry a prince. 

Molly: That is…by and large more than I knew about the original fairy tale I concede. I’m one of those fairy tale fans, who’ll read the original if I come across it but find what other creators have done with the concepts far more interesting than what the original writers did. Still, it’s a good story that holds up fairly well. Disney called it a tale as old as time for a very good reason.

Ale: Yeah, I thought about reading one of them and then I thought…. Nah.


Beauty and the Beast (Disney) Reactions/Thoughts/Memory Lane

Ale: Ah, Renaissance Disney… There will always be a special place in my heart for it because it is what I grew up with. And I do miss aspects of it, specifically the perfection that were Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s soundtrack. 

Beauty and the Beast is possibly the ultimate Renaissance Disney film. Being nominated for an Academy Award and all that… I remember taking a cloth from the kitchen to reenact Belle’s “Madame Gaston” bit.

When I was little, I used to say that Ariel was my favorite princess, but Beauty and the Beast was my favorite love story, because they didn’t like each other at first, and that seemed so much more real to me. Of course, later came all those claims about Stockholm Syndrome and the like, so… *le sigh* I guess we should talk about that, huh?

Molly: …if we must. Lindsay Ellis did a whole video essay on the subject, and it’s very good, but to boil it down to the most important piece, no, the Disney version of Belle does not have Stockholm Syndrome. And I’m not just being pedantic because there’s not a legally defined and recognized mental condition of that name, if I was I wouldn’t have just laid out the Disney version. Belle is the one to volunteer in the Disney version, making a deal with the Beast. And the very first time he behaves in a physically threatening way towards her, she runs and leaves without a moment of hesitation. She is free to leave at any time friends.

Ale: Thank you! I so agree with this! The Beast has a terrible temper and is generally horrible to Belle at first, but she does not take it. I’d also argue that Belle does not “change” Beast. I think she inspires him to be better, certainly reminds him of his human life, but Beast changes ultimately because he wants to.

Molly: Now, with that hottest of hot takes out of the way, I really do love this movie. Belle isn’t necessarily my favorite Disney princess, but she’s up there. This film is just…incredibly well put together, from start to finish, and there’s very little I can say about it that hasn’t been said before. It’s good. Really, really good. Honestly, of the classic Disney romances, easily the least sexual, least heteronormative of them, paving the way for films like Mulan, Frozen, and Moana to come along. If you haven’t seen it for some reason, fix that, and fix it now. Just maybe don’t watch the two direct to video midquels…or the live-action remake.

Ale: I try to block those from my memory.

Molly: Well, to be fair, the Christmas themed one does have Tim Curry voicing a giant talking, hypnotic, pipe organ, so there’s something to be said for it I suppose. Not the other one though.


La Belle et la Bete Reaction

Ale: I love this movie! I love it way more than I ever thought I would.  There are a lot of things about it I loved, not the least of which is how extra “La Bête” is in this one. However, the number one thing I adore about this movie is how utterly melodramatic it is. 

It doesn’t shy away from its dramatic lighting and posing, no, it chases them, leans into them. And it is just…. Delicious. La Bête’s dramatic first appearance just stepping out from behind a bush. Belle’s dramatic arrival in his castle, complete with music and random magical wind. The way Belle poses every time she’s about to glove travel. Ugh. Love it. Give me more. 

Molly: This film is a surrealist romp far more interested in its visuals and themes than anything else. That’s not to say this is an abstract film, per se, but it operates almost entirely on dream logic, references to classical mythology, and a stable of references and motifs Cocteau had already built over his previous works. Parts of it…don’t really make sense if you try and think about it too hard, but that’s the point. It’s not Cocteau being lazy, I can promise you that much. The man took Beauty and the Beast, put it in a blender with the myth of Orpheus and pure surrealism, and we got the concoction that resulted in. 

And the ending, while weird, is done for a good reason, demonstrating the dichotomy of love and beauty, that it can both create beasts and save them. Just in case you chose to watch the film and then wanted to scream at us in the comments about the ending.

How Cocteau’s inspired Disney’s

Ale: I am just amazed at how much of the Disney version actually comes from Cocteau’s Belle et la Bête rather than the original. From the sick father to the mere existence of Gaston as a character going all the way to the castle being alive. 

Us humans have such short memories, that Disney came off as the originator of the idea releasing their film just 45 years after Cocteau’s. 

Of course, there is also the possibility that this is just in the Americas, and Europeans (specifically the French) have always known this. I’m sorry, France. Jean Cocteau’s version deserves much more love than it gets, and the credit for those living chandeliers. 

I would like to take this opportunity for a quick PSA: Unitedstatesians, friends, stop running away from subtitles. Embrace foreign languages, and foreign film. You won’t regret it, I swear!

Molly: I second that PSA!

So, as Ale stated, the state of Belle’s father, the existence of a human suitor for Belle, and the extent to which the castle is alive all come from Cocteau (the original fairy tale does reference invisible servants who do everything in some versions, but they’re…well, invisible. Cocteau was the one who made them living furniture). Other elements appear here as well, notably the magic mirror Belle uses to see outside the castle and the appearance of the Beast. Oh, certainly the medium of animation allowed Disney to go wild with their design, but he has a good number of feline elements to him, indeed that’s the underlying creature of his design. And a feline appearance was first introduced by Cocteau, with previous illustrations using stags, boars, elephants, or ogres for his design. This is in no way meant to insult or degrade the Disney version mind you, simply to point out that some things didn’t actually come from the fairy tale, but didn’t come from nowhere either.

The safe-sacrificing damsel in 1946 vs 1991 

Ale: One thing that is fascinating to me is how the different versions of Belle compare. All three could be described as self-sacrificing, choosing to give up their life/their freedom for her father. Yet there are subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which even that differs. 

Cocteau’s Belle (like the one in the original) is somewhat blamed for her fate because she asks her father for the gift of a rose, which ends up being what condemns the dad, as they happen to be what Beast treasures the most for plot reasons. In both the 1991 and the 2017 Disney versions, however, Belle is absolutely not to blame. They’re both also kind of impulsive, tricking their respective Maurices, who do not want them to go. 

Molly: Ugh, you’re going to make me acknowledge the 2017 live-action travesty? Fine. Ultimately, Cocteau’s Belle, while well-acted, is not particularly well written. Cocteau’s Beast gets most of the director’s attention in terms of character and personality, though she does get an arc of sorts, having to learn to love a kind but ugly man. 

Disney’s Belle doesn’t really have an arc, I’d say she’s about the same in the beginning and the end, but she’s the more fleshed out of the two versions, with more personality and power.


The Nature of a Beast 

Molly: So here is where the two films diverge in the most fundamental way possible. Those of you who have only seen the Disney film will be surprised to learn that Cocteau’s Beast didn’t get cursed because he was a prick, nor for any real acts on his part. Instead, he was cursed because his parents didn’t believe in spirits, the spirits choosing to enact their revenge through him. This fact, this knowledge, leads to a very different Beast than Disney’s. Coctaeu’s Beast is regal and melancholy, dressed to the nines and denying his beastliness as much as possible, in contrast to Disney’s Beast, who was resigned to his cursed state and to his fate.

Cocteau wrote his Beast better than his Belle, in no small part because he likely related to the character. For you see, Cocteau made the Beast a tortured artist and steeped him in the tradition of the Byronic hero. And with that tradition comes certain problems. For while Disney’s Beast is more shouty and rude, Cocteau’s is passive-aggressive and somewhat entitled. 

Ale: I mean…. “I will come to you every night at seven and ask if you’ll marry me.” 

It’s true. Though something I do appreciate about La Bête is that he is overly sensitive. I think today that is rare–though he sometimes uses that in the wrong way. 

I do so greatly appreciate Disney’s Beast’s arc. The writers (for there were many) never try to make you feel sorry for him in a way that excuses his behavior. His bad actions are addressed and he actually repents. When he lets Belle leave to see her sick father, he is setting her free, and not expecting anything from her. 


The Handsome Evil 

Ale: The villains in both films are human love interests for Belle who do not have the purest intentions. At the end of each film, they both race into the Beast’s castle… for different reasons. Avenant wants money (along with Belle’s siblings). He wasn’t all bad, either. Meanwhile, Gaston wants to protect the reputation of his toxic hypermasculinity. That’s it. That is why he raises the village up in arms against the Beast. Belle said “no” to him, and dared prefer someone else and he just couldn’t take it. It’s so real, though, that it’s uncomfortable. 

Another point of interest is the difference in Belle’s feelings. Disney’s Belle feels (understandably) repulsed by Gaston from the get-go. Belle confesses she did love Avenant at first at the end of Cocteau’s version. Which makes the ending of that film, which I will not spoil, all the more interesting…

Molly: And that, I think, hits the point on the head. Avenant is not here for us to boo and hiss at, not so much. We’re definitely not supposed to be rooting for him, but at the end of the day, he’s not really a villain so much as he is the inferior romantic interest. He’s certainly not the best person, but Belle ending up with him would merely be a mediocre ending, as opposed to how ending up with Gaston would be an out and out bad ending.


How We Think of Romance (1946-1991-present)

Molly: I think that the way in which these films portray love is best illustrated by which of the titular pair needs to change in the film. In Cocteau’s film, it is Belle who must change, and learn to just accept the Beast as he is. In contrast, it is Disney’s Beast who must change, and learn to become a better person to earn the love of Belle. And that’s the crux of the issue. In 1946 romantic love is something that is inherently deserved, while in 1991 it was something that had to be earned.

Ale: I was just reminded of Sorkin’s The Social Network, where Rooney Mara’s character says something like “You’ll go through life thinking girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd, but it’ll be because you’re an asshole.” 

That’s it for Disney’s Beast, too. He thinks he’s unlovable because he’s a beast, a condition he considers to lie entirely on his physical appearance. He discovers instead that what made him a beast had nothing to do with his horns and hairy body. That’s just a very powerful message, and one that, despite what Disney itself seems to think (ahem, 2017 version), still holds true. 

In terms of romance, I think all that relates to the way we center our romantic thoughts on ourselves. “Oh, poor me, how can this person not love me,” instead of looking in a mirror and how we view them and ourselves. Belle was always capable of loving Beast, but Beast was incapable of loving himself, even a little bit, at first.



Best Beast:

Molly: Sorry Jean, but I gotta give it to Disney. I prefer a character who changes and whose flaws are addressed, even if yours has better manners.

Ale: You just have to see that scene where he’s getting a bath and Lumiere tries to teach him to smile. Adorable!

Molly: Or his big dorky grin when Belle hugs him tightly in the ballroom scene for that matter.


Most Extra: 

Ale: Oh, La Bête, for sure. No one comes close to his level of EXTRA. 

Molly: You won’t get any arguments from me.


Best Belle:

Molly: …yeah, no, this one I have no compunctions about. Josette Day did her damnedest but Coctaeu just wasn’t interested in the character overly much, or at least it didn’t feel like he was. Disney’s Belle isn’t perfect, but she is better, at least in my opinion.

Ale: Though Belle is a static character, I do appreciate how self-assured she is. I certainly appreciated that when I was little, and have come to cherish it as I grow. Go, Belle, stand your ground!


Best Villain:

Ale: Gaston is to this day, the scariest Disney villain for me. For the simple reason that I have met a Gaston or two, in real life. 

Molly: I’m inclined to agree with you. Avenant is a bad person, and an interesting character, but due to the changes to his death and his motivation for going to the Beast’s castle to begin with, he simply never manages to reach the sheer level of threat that Gaston does either.


Best Enchanted Castle:

Ale: This is a hard one. I’d say Cocteau’s for sure–those big eyes watching her all the time–if it weren’t for Lumiere and Cogsworth’s banter. 

Molly: I won’t argue with you there. While I have some issues with how Cocteau writes characters, he is without a doubt very good at getting a set to look just so, and it shines here. So while I love Disney’s castle staff, I’m giving this to La Belle as well.


Most Problematic Beast Moment:

Ale: I have to give this to my sad extra baby La Bête, because he completely used his self-pity to manipulate Belle.

Molly: Yeah. I mean, I think I’ve hammered this point in enough, but yeah, the manipulative self-loathing of La Bête takes the problematic cake here.


And so there we have it! Two tremendously successful and culturally important adaptations of the tale as old as time, one sadly largely forgotten outside of France, and the other with a rather…tarnished legacy. One surreal and strange, and one conventional but heartfelt. Both absolutely worth your watch.

Thank you for your time friends, we hope you appreciated this late November edition! Join us later this month when we will be tackling the three different versions of Black Christmas…and possibly tackling a film we actually dislike the for the first time, we’ll just have to wait and see! Thanks so much for reading!

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

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