By Leah Burchfiel
This all came about when I re-watched the Disney movie “Beauty and the Beast” after not seeing it after a very long time and came away feeling dissatisfied. I know it’s hard to tell a story in ninety minutes between all the cheesy musical numbers, but it seemed rushed and rather hacked. I know the story was supposed to take the place over several months, but it seemed that the Beast suddenly went on medication with the kind of abrupt behavior changes he exhibited. And when he changed, he just acted really clueless, and not in a cute way.
So I when I went to the Netflix website to rate it, Netflix suggested the 1946 French version, “La Belle et la Bête,” by Jean Cocteau. So out of curiosity, I watched it with the Disney version fresh in my mind for comparison.
I think Disney’s problem was that they modernized it too much and lost the archaic charm of the fairy tale. This French version is much closer to the original fairy tale, though they also embellish it.
In Cocteau’s movie, Belle (Josette Day) is the daughter of a merchant, not an inventor, with two sisters and a brother. The father has lost his ships in a storm and therefore lost his money, but one ship miraculously shows up at port. Belle’s sisters ask for expensive presents, but Belle only asks for a rose, since they don’t grow in their area. The father travels to the port city, but the ship’s cargo only just pays off his debts to his creditors.
So as he travels dejectedly back to his home, he gets lost in the foggy night and stumbles upon the Beast’s castle, where he is fed dinner by the servants and goes to sleep. Unlike Disney’s anthropomorphic household objects, in the original tale the servants were invisible, but Cocteau used disembodied arms growing from the walls and the table, with the occasional statue opening its eyes to watch you. Creepy, but I actually find it better than the Disney. The Disney characters distracted from the Belle/Beast relation, while in Cocteau’s, the focus is rarely diverted from it.
But, to get back on track, the merchant wanders through the Beast’s castle and into the garden, where he finds beautiful roses and remembers his promise to Belle. But just as soon as he picks the rose, the Beast (Jean Marais) appears and says that his life is forfeit for taking such liberties. It seems like overreacting, but, hey, it’s a fairy tale, and it’s later revealed that the roses are part of the Beast’s magic. So the merchant explains why he took the rose and begs for his life, and the Beast, intrigued, asks about his daughters. The Beasts says he will allow him to go home, but he must return in three days unless one of his daughters agrees to die in his place.
Of course, Belle insists on taking her father’s place, since it was because of her that he picked the rose. The father won’t hear of it, her brother won’t hear of it, and Avenant, the brother’s friend, won’t hear of it, either. Avenant is the embellishment from the original fairy tale, and Disney turned this character into Gaston. Avenant is a reckless frat-boy type, but he’s less despicable than Gaston, and he seems to genuinely care about Belle. As a side note, Belle’s sisters only gripe about Belle asking for such a stupid present. As far as we are aware, they are not step-sisters, but they fall fully into the step-sister trope.
Belle sneaks off and makes it to the castle, and here is where the main difference comes between Cocteau and Disney. Belle faints when she first sees the Beast, which no self-respecting modern Disney princess would do, since they have to be gender-equality role models for impressionable girls. But when she revives, the Beast treats her gently and tells her that she is master of the castle and her every wish will be obeyed. She will not even see him except at seven o’clock at dinner, when he will ask her the same question each night, whether she will be his wife. Unlike Disney, Cocteau’s Beast really acts as though he was once a prince, with all the courtly manners a prince would have.
Although not to the Disney corny level, this movie is heavily stylized, with plenty of hand-to-foreheads to express distress and Hamlet-like posturing of the Beast. I think this is rather charming, but I will admit that it’s rather silly.
This film is entirely in French and entirely subtitled. My French is very weak, but I congratulated myself for recognizing individual words about once every three lines of dialogue. I felt like a genius because I knew the difference between La Bête and Mon Bête.
I even think that Cocteau’s Beast-turned-Prince (Jean Marais without fur) is better looking than Disney’s (except for the really stupid-looking doublet and bombasted hose).
So, in conclusion, [blows raspberry at Disney]. That is all.