Film version of the Le Prince de Beaumont tale

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“Beauty and the Beast:” Fairy tale vs. cinema

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The story “Beauty and the Beast” is one of the most popular juvenile fairy tales of all time. It has also been a potent source of metaphor for many authors and filmmakers. One of the most famous written versions of the fairy tale for children is one authored by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont. Beaumont uses the story in a didactic fashion, both to illustrate the values of Beauty and the superior values of the countryside. When Beauty’s family is located in the city, her sisters adopt the shallow and superficial values of the city and refuse to associate with people of their own merchant class. Only after being humbled in the countryside does the youngest daughter prove herself worthy of the fortune Beauty’s father obtained previously through trade. In contrast, the film version of the Beaumont tale directed by Jean Cocteau entitled La Belle et la Bete (1946) is less concerned about the class resonances than it is the fairy-tale, transcendent aspect of the story. The heroine Belle’s psychological journey from her asexual secure place in the home of her father to the sexualized world of the Beast where even the walls have hands defines the film.

Both prose and cinematic versions of “Beauty and the Beast” stress the value of sacrificial feminine behavior. In the fairy tale and the film Beauty bears the family’s fall into poverty graciously (unlike her sisters), only asks her father for a rose when he departs in search of the cargo, and sacrifices her life and liberty to the Beast. Unlike her sisters, Little Beauty has a beautiful disposition that reflects her inner as well as her outer worth. When wealthy she is scholarly rather than snobbish in the Beaumont tale. In both tales, she is willing to work hard when the family is living in the countryside in poverty.

The 1946 film version of the Le Prince de Beaumont tale begins after Beauty’s merchant father has lost everything, and Belle is seen scrubbing the floors and taking care of her bereft father. This tends to de-contextualize the surrounding events leading up to the family’s poverty. In contrast, Beaumont stresses how the decadent values of the city corrupted the other members of the family, particularly Beauty’s two older sisters who only care about themselves. After losing the family fortune, no one wants to marry them because of the sisters’ ugliness inside. In contrast, Beauty still has suitors, but she sacrifices them so she can take care of her father. In their humble country home, Beauty toils from 4 in the morning onward like a scullery maid, trying to make a home for the family while her sisters get up at 10am and complain all of the time, even though they lead lives of relative luxury, in comparison to Beauty.

Although the film omits the class-based introduction, it adds a subplot, the story of Avenant, her brother’s friend, who wants to marry Belle. For her father’s sake, Belle refuses him. In the Beaumont tale, Beauty is merely said to have refused numerous suitors who place her moral worth above her material worth. This serves to reinforce the class-based theme that one must ‘prove’ one’s fitness as a member of the bourgeois, rather than merely be born into it like a prince. When wealthy, Beauty’s sisters in the Beaumont version are explicitly said to reject girls of their class who are from slightly poorer families and aspire to associate only with the aristocracy and ‘marry up.’ But it is only Beauty who has value that transcends monetary worth.

Class and culture and the way in which it relates to the concept of intelligence and bestiality is not stressed in the film, yet has particular weight in the written, literary version of the fairy tale. The Beast repeatedly apologizes to Beauty for his lack of intelligence, and Beauty eventually comes to praise his simple talk and homespun wit — paralleling what could be a contrast between how people talk in the country vs. The urbane wit of those in the city. Beauty is ultimately rewarded for having preferred “virtue over beauty and wit” (italics mine, 1757). Artificiality of the city is liked to superficial appreciation of appearances that are intellectual in nature as well as physical. Her sisters are turned into stone in punishment until they can understand the evils of their ways and part of their punishment is that they can only listen, not speak, in contrast to their previous, garrulous displays of snobbery and wit which they used to signify what they saw as their superior class status in an urban context. The film transposes this idea of statues being alive in a far less literal way — the statues in the Beast’s palace have eyes and watch the proceedings of the film, although the reason that they have this power is never explicitly stated. The voyeuristic eyes and caressing hands of the walls instead reinforce the highly tactile, sexual fantasy world of the Beast’s castle.

The moral of Beaumont’s tale is clearly stated, but the film is far more ambiguous in its depiction of the end of the story. Critics such as Roger Ebert have commented that the film is fundamentally Freudian in tone: “Consider the extraordinary shot where Belle waits at the dining table in the castle for the Beast’s first entrance. He appears behind her and approaches silently. She senses his presence, and begins to react in a way that some viewers have described as fright, although it is clearly orgasmic. Before she has even seen him, she is aroused to her very depths, and a few seconds later, as she tells him she cannot marry — a Beast! — she toys with a knife that is more than a knife” (Ebert 1999). In the fairy tale, Beauty is young and naive and does not recognize her passion for the Beast until the very end. In the film, Belle begins looking like a chaste young maid and her reticence about the Beast seems tied to her reluctance about expressing her sexuality rather than his beast-like qualities. Even when Belle decides to sacrifice herself for her father, this is done in a secretive fashion in the film, as if the young girl is eloping into new adolescence. She rides the magical horse of the Beast, provided to her father from her home to the palace in the depths of night.

The mixed, unclear desires of Belle are deliberately engineered by the casting of the film. “The Beast comes back to life and turns into a prince who looks uncannily like — the dead friend. And no wonder, because all three — friend, Beast and prince — are played by Jean Marais” (Ebert 1999). Thus, although Belle’s former suitor is punished by being turned into a beast, there is a sense of circularity to the narrative — Belle is courted by the same actor, haunted by him as a Beast, falls in love with him as a Beast, and symbolically loses her first suitor yet gains him as a prince all at once — even while his alter ego still remains bestial. He is all aspects of the same man. At the beginning of the film when Avenant, proposes he is violent (he punches her brother and later slaps her sister) — in disposition he is much like the actual beast is in appearance. The Beast puts revealing clothing on Belle through magic; Avenant gropes her. Director Jean Cocteau “adds his characteristic complications to the tale — giving the Beast a thoroughly earthly and unenchanted doppelganger, Avenant, and adding a mythic dimension by means of a secret temple to Diana — he allows the pure force of the narrative to assert itself, as if he were content for once to figure as a kind of medieval artisan” (O’Brien 2011). The psychological interiority and circularity of the narrative is yet another element the Beaumont tale lacks, which is strikingly linear in its construction.

However, some of the differences between film and tale no doubt lie in the innate differences of film, which is pictorial rather than verbal in nature. In the prose story, Beauty’s selection of a rose is explained carefully — she wants her father to have more merchandise to sell, but does not want to ask for nothing, for fear of drawing the ire of her sisters. In the film, Beauty’s request of the rose seems part of her larger, self-imposed regime of austerity. “It is a fallen world, in which Belle (Josette Day) seems to withdraw into a hermetic suffering amid the meanness of her elder sisters, the feckless opportunism of her brother, the moral weakness of her father, and the overtures of Jean Marais’ handsome and empty Avenant” (O’Brien 2011).

The strangeness of the Beast’s palace and its ominous nature that is depicted in the film also suggests that the fairy-tale ending in which the Beast is revealed to be ‘good’ is far less certain than that of the original story. The magical powers of the Beast are never fully explained, and while the Beast does have the power to provide food, clothing, and transportation at will to both Belle and her father in the Beaumont version, the execution of these powers does not have the haunted-house quality of the film. The attraction and repulsion created by the strangeness of the Beast also seems to draw Belle in a manner not addressed in the book: “Even Belle doesn’t leap cheerfully into his arms, but looks quizzically at her new catch and confesses she misses the Beast” (Ebert 1999).

By deemphasizing the class-based element of the Beaumont tale, Jean Cocteau is freed to create a more psychologically resonant story. There is no real ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the story, rather the story reflects the ambiguous emotions of a young woman who both desires to remain with her father and desires to leave; a young woman who desires a man who is princely and good and who also desires a sexualized beast. The viewer is able to more easily identify with Belle, who functions more as a rounded character in the film, rather than the pure embodiment of good that she does in the literary fairy tale version.

The opulence of the Beast’s palace in the film is striking in its fantasy, rather than in its richness, but the story lacks the obsessive focus on how wealth drives the narrative, which in the prose version spans from the father’s provision of gold from the Beast’s treasure to Beauty’s offerings of finery from the palace when she is allowed to travel back. Although the film contains these elements, the atmosphere is so fantastical there is a clear divide between the economics of the world of the Beast in and the first scenes of an “elegant but resolutely unmagical reality, further amplified by the implied rapacity of encircling creditors and moneylenders” (O’Brien 2011). The ‘good’ merchant’s daughter Belle gets her prince at the end of the conventional fairytale through her love of her father and her lack of interest in the fine ball gowns and elements of aristocratic trappings with which her sisters are fascinated. But in the Cocteau film, Belle survives a kind of psychological trial by fire within her soul as well as without, as she wrestles with her feelings of desire more than the morality of how to weigh money and family obligations when selecting a mate.

Works Cited

La Belle et la Bete. Directed by Jean Cocteau. 1946

Ebert, Roger. Beauty and the Beast. Review. Chicago Sun Times. 26 Dec 1999. [4 Jul 2012]

Le Prince de Beaumont, Jeanne-Marie. “Beauty and the Beast.” From the Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature. New York: Norton, 2005

O’Brien, Geoffrey. “Beauty and the Beast: Dark Magic.” The Criterion Collection.

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