...a unity of eyes and firelight...

La Belle et la Bete

In Vagaries on April 22, 2011 at 8:06 pm

Jean Cocteau, 1946

While watching La Belle et la Bete last night, apart from admiring the imagery, the cinematography, the mise-en-scene, I was having vague notions of symbolism.  Somehow, I did not know the actual storyline beforehand, so I didn’t know what kind of fairy-tale it was, whether it would have a Grimm, dark ending or a twee, Disney one, so I was having to modify the symbols I was imagining every few minutes, as the story progressed.

I think the symbols may have finally collapsed under the weight of the finale, but I’d like to explore the characters to make sure.

La Belle is pretty, beautiful… Beautiful, even.  But naïve, servile.  The state to which she has become accustomed is that of the servant.  She craves not for riches, ostensibly not even for freedom, but for love.  Specifically the love of a handsome man.  Ideally the love of a handsome prince – again, not explicitly for his riches, but for the romance of it.  Whence does this romance come?  (When discussing fairy tales, one can use the word, ‘whence’ with impunity. So sayeth the good book.  Ditto, ‘sayeth.’)  From his ability to lift her from her servility, to give her pretty things, to allow her to be idle.  Free.  So then it is freedom which she ultimately craves, a freedom bought by the riches of a handsome prince.

So then what do we have here?  An idealised beauty, used to submission, but craving to be set free.  We have the idealised working class, the deserving poor.  Hard-working, honest, painfully so, and bound by the ties of her own passions, no matter how much they hurt her.  And weak to the exhortations of the less noble, the less honest.  Those who would dominate her.

And then we have La Bete.  Mysterious, magical, immensely powerful, noble for the most part, but essentially animal, finally always prey to instinct, governed not by his belief in what is ‘good’ and ‘right,’ but by a desire, a need to kill.  To eat.  Literally, to survive.  ‘Mon coeur est bon, mais je suis un monstre.’

So then we have a beast whose power is unknowable, who can not be finally understood, reasoned with or controlled, and yet this is what La Belle finds herself yearning to do.  We find La Bete falling in love with La Belle and showing this love through domination, control.  He will not let her go, he will dictate when she eats, what she eats, whom she sees.  She can not even do what she wants with his gifts, her jewellery turns into withered vegetables when she tries to give it to her sister.  Even when he lets her return, it is with his words hanging over her conscience, that he will die if she does not return to him.

Is this Beast not the market?  Capitalism.  Seeking to dominate the working class while convincing it that it can be good, and more than that, that it is inescapable.  It is the only good, or at least the least bad.  Perhaps even suppressing his knowledge of his own animal desires long enough to convince himself.  And of course, La Belle sees La Bete drink water from her cupped hands and thinks she can control this charming beast, she convinces herself and her father that he is ‘good,’ ‘Mon pere, ce monstre est bon.’  And yes, she even comes to depend on La Bete, to love him.

With this look of love, she transforms him into the handsome prince of whom she dreamed.  In fact the same handsome prince who had asked for her hand in marriage earlier on, but rich now and with the power of flight.  How exactly this fits into my imagined symbols, I’m not sure.

Perhaps it doesn’t.  Maybe, just maybe, fairy tales are a load of balls, and maybe, just maybe, the free market isn’t going to transform into a handsome prince and whisk us off to its glittering meritocracy.  Maybe, just maybe, La Bete can fuck off.

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