Thursday, November 1, 2007

La beauté et la bête

One of my students wants to write about love in the Disney film Beauty and the Beast. It occurred to me that “love” is perhaps the central concept of the film, since the film’s premise is that a prince is under a curse that can only be broken by love.

Ah. But what is “love”?

In the introductory sequence, narrated in voice-over against a visual sequence of pseudo-medieval stained-glass windows, we learn that the prince has turned an old woman seeking shelter away from his door, into the storm. The old woman warns the prince that things are not always what they seem, but he refuses her entry. The old woman then transforms into “a beautiful enchantress,” declares that there is no love in the prince’s heart, and puts the curse on him, turning him into a beast. He must learn to love another, and have "her" love him in return, within ten years, or he will remain Shrek a beast forever.

Thus the question of love -- What is love? How does one acquire it? Or, as the voice-over narrator puts it, “Who could ever learn to love ... A BEAST?” -- is positioned as the central problem of the film.

The old woman is a kind of wise Loathly Lady, but with a difference. She is not the cursed but the curser, and clearly powerful. Her appearance as an elderly woman (coded, of course, as sexually repulsive) is really a subterfuge on her part, and completely under her control. She is never really a poor old woman, and she never really needs shelter from the storm. She shows up, seemingly without motivation, to test the prince, and then to punish him for failing the test.

Why he must take the test in the first place is never questioned by the film. The film seems to suggest that there is a moral lesson embedded in the test; it doesn’t hold up, however. After all, the injunction to see beyond appearances to “the beauty within” only suggests that it’s acceptable to turn elderly mendicants into the cold, so long as you’re sure they aren’t covertly “beautiful enchantresses.” It is beauty, hidden or revealed, that is the condition for receiving humane treatment, not humanity.

The moment of the enchantress’s revelation is at once a revelation that this is a movie about beauty. For the key transformation here seems not to be from powerless to powerful, but from ugly to beautiful – or rather, the transformations are effected simultaneously, but it is only the latter that is effected in reverse on the prince, suggesting that the transformation from ugly to beautiful is a transformation from (sexually) powerless to powerful.

What, in the film, is love? It’s whatever breaks the curse. Magic vets the quality of love.

It is indeed another beautiful woman who will break the spell, who “could learn to love a beast,” reversing the effects of the prince’s failure by passing the test herself.

But we must understand that this is a different test, a sexual test. To prove that he has “love in his heart,” the prince is asked to let an elderly woman in from a storm. Although we are told that the prince turns her away because of her appearance, it is somewhat difficult to see how her appearance really enters into it; we know that the prince has a large castle and a large staff; he need never look at her. The prince’s failure is a failure of charity.

Belle, on the other hand, is asked to make a life-altering (and potentially cross-species) sexual decision. “Love” here is no longer agape (or better, caritas), but eros; the price for male inhumanity must be exacted in female sexual freedom.

The danger with Belle is not that she will fail in charity; this is never even a possibility, since from the beginning we see Belle (madonnalike, clad in virginal blue and white, she ultimately reclaims the rose) positioned as a maternal figure toward her father, towering over him and giving him pep talks about his inventions like a mom praising her kid’s science fair project. Charity is what she does. The danger is that she will make the wrong erotic choice: that she will let beauty determine her object of desire.

(Although we get a long song sequence at the beginning of the movie that establishes Belle’s enormous desire for “much more than this provincial life,” there’s no suggestion that she might, say, move to Paris and take up a career. Her much-trumpeted desires are quickly narrowed to a quasi-moral sexual choice between two competing avatars of masculinity.)

Belle, with the clarity of a Mary facing an annunciation, “chooses” rightly and the Beast is saved. The breaking of the curse tells us that Belle has also found true love, and this is a Good Thing, surely the very thing she longed for when she stood up on that hill and sang about adventure. But the real resolution is that the Beast regains his beauty, the real Beauty of the film’s title.

In an ironic turn, Belle must then stare into his face until she can decide, “It is you!”

The film asks, "What is love?" It answers: That which restores (male) beauty.


Maria said...

Good point, haven't seen that film in ages and you gotta love how the loathly lady shows up everywhere--troublesome, though, in her "true" form of hotness. Also the "medieval" windows...oh, Disney. Check it out, Disney on Disney:

skg046 said...

Were there justice, your student would have to play Bronze first, for contrast. It's not long, and it's not complicated, as interactive fiction goes.

Natalia said...

Oh, Sharon. Your nerd cred is so much greater than mine. Were there justice, my students would be able to read film as film and actually notice visuals, music, etc.

Maria, I fear Enchanted is just going to reproduce the "Oh, check out how quaint things were 'back then,' and how superior we are now! There's no sex oppression now, by golly!" meme.

Broom said...

Googling Cocteau's magnificent version of this film, I ran across your blog. A wonderful essay, that is forcing me to rethink this fairytale! 10Q veddy much for that.

--Joe / iambroom at gmail