Movie Night with Whitney: La Belle et La Bête

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Jeez, it’s been ages.  I’ve decided to make a habit of blogging about the movies I watch for my fantasy fiction class, so here goes.

Tonight we watched La Belle et La Bête, Jean Cocteau’s surrealist take on “Beauty and the Beast.”  One of the things I noticed about the film was its use of images related in some way, shape, or form to hunting.  This may seem obvious, given that one of the title characters is a beast, for heaven’s sake, but the ways Cocteau uses that are fascinating.

We never see the Beast hunting in the film, but it’s heavily implied that when he isn’t being civil to Belle, the Beast is out indulging his darker nature.  When Belle’s father first meets the Beast, he takes special note of a deer carcass on the ground.  Later, the Beast has to restrain himself from chasing after a deer while in Belle’s presence.  Perhaps most memorably, Belle sees the Beast come back to the castle with his clothes all torn and bloody and tells him to act like a civilized person.

The decor inside and around the Beast’s castle reflects the beastly part of him.  The chair in the dining room has carved lion heads on its arms.  The gardens are filled with stone dogs that very much resemble typical hunting dogs – pointers, setters, the like.  Nature seems to overrun the castle in places, blurring the line between civilization and beastliness.  All of this is reinforced by the source of the Beast’s magic – a place on the castle grounds that he calls Diana’s Pavilion.  This is an obvious reference to the Roman goddess of hunting, and indeed when Ludovic and Avenant (Belle’s brother and his friend) break into the strictly off-limits Pavilion, there’s a statue of Diana inside.  Like the rest of the statues in the castle, Diana can move, so she raises her bow and shoots Avenant in the back.

It could be just me, but I think there’s a certain significance to the goddess being the Roman Diana rather than her Greek equivalent Artemis.  In my critical reading and writing class, we’ve been talking about Roman civilization in conjunction with Ovid, and my professor mentioned that the Greeks were great at intellectual pursuits like math and science, but not so awesome at empire-building.  The Romans, however, were all about conquest and empires.  In light of this, it’s fitting that Cocteau chose Diana rather than Artemis – the goddess of a people bent on hunting power rather than hunting knowledge.

Another unrelated thing that interested me was the implied comparison between Avenant (the Gaston-like character, for those of you who are more familiar with the Disney version) and the Beast.  The movie basically begins with Avenant asking Belle to marry him and then trying to force her to kiss him when she says no.  That’s sexual assault right there – not something a civilized person should do.  The Beast, however, is quite restrained compared to Avenant.  True, he asks Belle to marry him every night at dinner (the myth that “no” means “convince me” gets really old really fast), but he says explicitly that he’ll never force Belle to do anything.  As far as he’s concerned, Belle is the one in charge at the castle.  So we have this really interesting comparison of the two characters, where the Beast is the civilized person, and the “civilized” person – Avenant – is a beast.

Normally, I might doubt whether Cocteau did this intentionally, but the events at the movie’s end make me think he was fully aware of what he was implying.  When Diana shoots Avenant, he transforms into a beast and falls, dead, onto the floor of the Pavilion.  At the same time, the Beast transforms into a prince – who looks strikingly similar to Avenant.  Belle even comments on it.  I just checked IMDb, and sure enough, Jean Marais plays both Avenant and the prince.  That, to me, implies that Cocteau meant for the two characters to be two sides of the same coin.

(Ludovic’s story was left hanging at the end, but I have this notion that seeing the Beast’s magic made him go insane, and he wandered around the castle for the rest of his days, gibbering senselessly… I may have to write that fanfic.)

Overall, I liked this movie.  The cinematography and costume design were positively swoonworthy, and the story was different enough from Disney’s version to hold my interest.  I’d definitely recommend it.

I’ll be back with another movie night post in two weeks, when we watch The Seventh Seal.  Now I’m off to read The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capellanus.  Au revoir!

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