Films: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete
Directors: Gary Trousdale/Kirk Wise and Jean Cocteau
Years: 1991 and 1946
So, as you may or may not have picked out from this blog, I’m something of a fan of fairy-tales. As someone who is quite visually driven, I’m a fan of the imagery they evoke – and as someone who likes understanding people, I’m a fan of how the way in which a fairytale is told (what is included, what gets left out) often speaks volumes about the society that produced it.
But that’s not exactly what I wanted to talk about today. Mainly I just wanted to get around to comparing two versions of one of my favourite fairy-tales of all time: Beauty and the Beast.
While the Disney version seems to have taken a lot of inspiration from the Cocteau version (including the design of the beast, the enchanted household items and Avenant, a Gaston-like character); the two movies are very different (as you would expect from the America’s upholder of family values and a French surrealist), and they were clearly made for very different audiences.
Visually, both movies are absolutely stunning. I remember the first time I watched the Disney version I was only a wee-thing but I was so completely and utterly drawn into the world and frequently felt genuine fear – of the beast, of his castle, of the woods – there is so much in this movie that is terrifying for very young kids (as in, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t older than five the first time I saw this). The music and the visuals and the atmosphere in this film are just incredible, and I am not surprised that people still consider this one of Disney’s best animated feature length films.
(Seriously though, this scene. Like holy crap how terrifying is the beast when he first steps into the light?)
Cocteau’s world is just as entrancing, but in an entirely different way. Like the Disney, Cocteau’s world is frightening – but not in an overtly obvious way. There’s just something incredibly unsettling about the beast’s castle (the human arm chandeliers for one) and I think in a way, this difference perfectly demonstrates who the different audiences are. While Disney’s version was terrifying for children (and is still visually dark and impressive at times, though you’ll be glad to know I no longer quake at the site of the best), Cocteau’s version was made for adults. Even in the 40’s (especially after the war, where no horror could amount to what people probably saw in real life) adults are much harder to scare, and I think it’s the familiar made unfamiliar that is so unsettling in this movie, especially for adults.
Also, it reminds me a bit of Joel Peter Witkin’s photography. There’s a kind of visual deception where everything looks as it should be until you notice the disembodied arm. And the arm isn’t even doing anything. It’s just there. But that’s what’s so unsettling about it.
Where Disney’s film was a movie aimed primarily at children to teach them a moral about judging surfaces rather than inner qualities; Cocteau was a movie that asked adults to be children again, to suspend their disbelief and allow themselves to be transported into this world that he has created. He states so quite literally in the very opening of the film:
- Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things.
- I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s “Open Sesame”:
- Once upon a time…
Does it succeed? Partly yes, and partly no. But I think this is perhaps true of all films.
While the atmosphere of the film is rich and all-enveloping, the visuals stunning and the music haunting – I had some issues with the characters, namely the Beast and Belle, and to be fair, a lot of it isn’t strictly speaking Cocteau’s fault.
Take the Beast. Admittedly, I believe my issue with Cocteau’s Beast is partly derived from the fact the he is very based on the Beast in the traditional fairytale and also partly derived from the fact that I am a modern viewer and this Beast was not meant to appeal to someone like me. While the Beast is indeed a tragic figure who clearly suffers greatly and who is clearly desperately lonely, I found it hard to like him and I found it hard to believe that Belle could ever love him. As in all versions of this tale, Belle is repulsed and horrified by his appearance and only later discovers his gentle side. Every night the Beast asks her if she will marry him, and every night she says no – because despite the fact that she has grown to like him as a friend, she finds his looks too horrifying to contemplate marrying.
This dynamic makes me super uncomfortable because it makes the basis of their relationship essentially one of pity, which he later uses to manipulate Belle into coming back. When she asks to leave to see her father, he says he will allow her to do so on the condition that she must return to him – otherwise he’ll die. He essentially emotionally blackmails her to return (which isn’t what the film intended, but is how feel when I see Belle and the Beast interact). It means that while I can understand Belle feeling compassionate for the Beast and even feeling fond of him, I cannot understand her falling in love with him – especially when throughout the movie and throughout their interactions there is no indication that she has developed feelings for him beyond a pitiful sense of affection. Moreover when the Beast transforms back into his handsome self his entire attitude and personality changes – from the meek, self-deprecating Beast he turns into a confident-bordering-on-arrogant prince who looks just like Avenant, the attractive suitor Belle originally rejected. Aside from the sudden demeanour change, the fact that Belle openly admires how he looks like Avenant and basically says that this pleases her (Yey! An Avenant who isn’t a dick! I guess…?) makes it hard for me to believe in her love for him and believe in their relationship.
The relationship between Disney’s Beast and Belle on the other hand, I can understand a bit better (but then, this movie was made to appeal to someone of my generation). I tend to feel accusations of Stockholm Syndrome are unfair as Belle doesn’t even remotely like him until long after he’s stopped being a violent douchebag. I also feel it doesn’t play into the “bad boy” trope because in most of those tropes the girls can’t help but be drawn to someone they know is wrong for them – which isn’t the case with Belle. She argues with the Beast and tells him she ran away because he’s a violent asshole and he needs to calm down otherwise she won’t stay. That’s not falling for a “bad boy”, that’s quite rightly standing up for yourself and drawing some boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. (It does however play into another trope: the love of a virtuous woman redeeming a terrible man). But she doesn’t start to love him until after they’ve formed a friendship and more importantly until after he’s realised that if you love someone you can’t force them to stay with you against their will and that you have to let them make their own choices, even if that choice means leaving you. Which she does. Not once does he tell her that she is his last chance at becoming human again and he does not even ask her to come back – he just lets her go free. Simple as that.
Not that the Disney version doesn’t have it’s issues (Oh god comic relief characters why, just why), but overall I am much fonder of the Disney version than I am of Cocteau’s. I know, I know – Ginie you’re such a philistine! Preferring Disney over Cocteau? Pssh! What can I say? Obviously my fondness for Disney is also largely nostalgia-fuelled, and as I’ve stated, the movie Cocteau made wasn’t made for post-WWII adults, not for a child of the 90’s. So if liking the Disney version more makes me a philistine, than I guess so be it. In the meanwhile, share your thoughts in the comments!