Tuesday, December 13, 2011

La Belle et la Bête

When I was in kindergarten, my Maa had told me the story of the selfish giant and his garden. I can still remember the days. I would come home by noon, and during the still afternoon, when Baba would be away at office, my Granma (Thamma) would be in her room, quietly reading the paper after her short siesta, and I would lie awake beside Maa who would be sleeping, looking at the slim book which contained the story. I had barely learnt to read, and I would form the words, not understanding all of them. I would imagine the giant living in our para, with his high-wall surrounding his beautiful garden. I believed that that was the phase when he'd put up the notice of "trespassers will be prosecuted", and so I had to play on the dusty road - which was really covered with stones just like in the story. Being a loner, I would patiently wait for the day when the giant would break down the wall, and I would creep in softly and play.

Sundays were my favourites. Baba was home, and we would spend the mornings together, watching cartoons that Doordarshan aired after their staple Sunday rangoli. That was when Baba had told me the story of Gulliver's Travels and I would spend long hours deliberating exactly how small the lilliputs were, taking my tiny finger as the standard size. It was around that time that I had watched Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast', and by some curious penchant of the child mind (especially mine) to muddle up details, I would eventually grow up to equate the Giant with Belle's Beast.

Yes, as one who doesn't know me personally would've guessed by now - I love fairy tales. Especially at 23, my love for these stories is a testimony to my inherent romantic nature (oh my giddy aunt!). But on a serious note, I would happily trade a magic realist book I own for a good, hearty, old-fashioned fairy tale, with cute princes who have no function other than to look good and be oblivious to the world around them, while inspiring, beautiful young maidens face all travails and hardships for the sake of love.

During my 1st year at the university, when I was neck-deep with reading "important" texts, A, my German teacher was making us read and do exercises on the Grimm Brothers' tales. For me, it was a revisiting of the genre after a long, long time. A, self-confessedly a Disney fan, had also made us do exercises on 'Beauty and the Beast', tactfully translating it into Die Schoene und das Biest, the German of Madame Beaumont's original  La Belle et la Bête. We had to decide which fairy tale was our favourite, and I had made A make an exception in my case, by allowing me to speak on two of them as favourites. Those evening classes after a day of fruitless (and mostly thankless) struggle at the uni, was a respite for me. I had spent long hours deliberating whether to speak on Aschenputtel (Cinderella) first, or on Die Schoene und das Biest. In a fit of enthusiasm, A had also distributed her copy of the Disney classics, but somehow, by dint of the disadvantages of circulation, I never found myself with the CD. That was what had prompted me to finally procure Jean Cocteau's 1946 cinematic version of La Belle et la Bête a couple of years later. With days before my M.A. finals, I'd caught a short glimpse of Cocteau breaking the proverbial fourth wall, and writing about children and fairy tales before the opening credits of the film, before straining my eyes forcefully away from the screen and back to Derrida's concept of decentering.

I finally watched the film last week, and I've been enamored, to say the least. M. Cocteau diverges noticeably from Mme. Beaumont's version. He introduces Jean Marais as Avenant, Belle's suitor, and at the last scene, Avenant, while attempting to steal from Diana's Pavilion, is struck by Diana's arrow and transforms into a beast, while the real beast wakes up as a charming, suave, dainty-legged Jean Marais. There are other slight deviations such as Belle's family, after losing their fortune, continue to live in their mansion, while in the story they move to a farmstead; and Belle, in the story actually has three brothers, while M. Cocteau cuts the number down to one. Nevertheless, these slight differences do not mar the perfection of the film. Josette Day is resplendent as Belle, and her kindness oozes out of the frame and strikes the viewer. Crammed with beautiful gothic set pieces, stunning avant-garde costumes and striking make-up for the beast, La Belle et la Bête creates a haunting surrealist image. Belle's sleepy village town is continuously contrasted with the Beast's sweeping bravado of a castle, as if driving home the fact that he belongs to a different world (and to make the difference more physical and palpable, the Beast says in the scene that the time in his world and Belle's world is different).

One of the primary reasons why this tale is a perennial favourite is definitely because the Beast is a "different" fairy tale hero. When I was young, the very romance of a kiss transforming an ugly beast into a handsome prince was what had appealed to me. But what M. Cocteau shows, and what is at the heart of this tale, is that the Beast is not merely ugly or ruthless. He preys, but he suffers (the scene at dawn when he's covered with blood and Belle confronts him); he loves, but he is helpless; he is kind, and he is tolerant. Therefore, the transformation of the Beast at the end into handsome Prince Charming is a disappointment for the viewers, who have watched with rapt awe, the empathetic scenes between Belle and the Beast. One is thus little surprised when one learns that during the film's screening in Paris, Greta Garbo had reportedly cried out, "Give me back my beast!" after the transformation. As a justification of his vision, Cocteau had written, "My goal was to make the beast so human, so likeable, so superior to man that his transformation into Prince Charming would be for Belle, a terrible disappointment and would oblige her into a marriage of reason."

Lest we forget in such theorising, La Belle et la Bête is, despite everything, a sublime poetry in motion; an alluring and delightful excursion into the dreams and fantasies of one's childhood. Made in the immediate aftermath of the World War II, it offered French (and eventually world) cinema audiences what it most craved - sheer escapism, blessed relief from the painful memories of the Occupation and the penury of Post-war austerity.

I have tried to make a collage of portraits from the film. I'm sure it won't be half as enchanting as the cinema itself.


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