The lamb must learn to run with the tigers; La Belle et la Bête and The Tiger’s Bride

Posted by Stephanie Gallon on November 09, 2015 in Stephanie Gallon tagged with , , , , , , , , ,

In my last post, I discussed the surrealist French film La Belle et la Bête, written and directed in 1946 by Jean Cocteau. Despite being a mainstream success and a critical darling in France and more recently lauded for its ‘surreal elegance’ (Hogan, 1997: 90), the film was received in Surrealist circles as a poor imitation of the artistic movement. Cocteau denied being a Surrealist, despite his works often being cited as Surrealist cinema. La Belle et la Bête is not purely surrealism; it is surrealism made Gothic and traditional.

d76e3ad182e745fa01dd41a35f29a45aAngela Carter’s short story The Tiger’s Bride seems to lend much from Cocteau’s classic. Though not a surrealist writer, her piece is best summed up as magical realism; real worlds where magic and transformation is possible and accepted. Carter was greatly influenced by ‘20th-century French surrealist and structuralist writing’ (Simpson, 2006), and many parallels can be drawn between the two tales. This post will compare some of the features both pieces share.

The film starts with a realist 17th century village, but descends into a Gustave Doré illustration when the story moves to the palace. Doré provided the more popular images for Perrault’s fairy tales, including his telling of Beauty and the Beast. The focus is not on surrealism here, but on Gothicism. Statues smoke and their eyes follow the guests; hands coming from the wall hole candles and serve tea. They are referred to as ‘invisible’ helpers, but we see clearly the disembodied horrors which serve Belle. The surrealism is just as important though. Belle’s first entrance to the palace is shown as both traversing through the underworld in an Orphic manner, and an exploration of her own subconscious.

Cocteau created the hunter Avenant for Belle as a second love interest, playing the role of the dream-prince from the original tale. Carter does not provide a second love interest for Beauty, sticking closer to the original source material than Cocteau. The substitution is instead a metaphoric statement of the patriarchy. Just as Belle must barter with her own life to pay her father’s debt, Beauty barters with the only thing of value she has to offer in this patriarchal world—her virginity. Her father views her virtue as a commodity to be traded, and the Tiger sees its worth. Beauty remarks that ‘my own skin was my sole capital in the world and today I’d make my first investment’ (p.68), and knows that she has lost value by giving herself to this man-beast. Unlike Belle, whose transition to womanhood is shot with a saccharine and fantastical lens, Beauty is thrust abruptly in to womanhood and given no say in her departure. In the end, Beauty sends to her father a clockwork copy of herself to take her place. The Tiger replaces her father as possessor, and the copy replaces her as a literal possession. It is only then that she finds a comfortable role in womanhood—as a tigress.

From the original press-book printed in 1947 to coincide with the American release of the movie, Cocteau said of his intentions:

My aim would be to make the Beast so human, so sympathetic, so superior to men, that his transformation into Prince Charming would come as a terrible blow to Beauty, condemning her to a humdrum marriage and a future that I summed up in that last sentence of all fairy tales: ‘And they had many children.’

Carter circumnavigates this by allowing Beauty to have her own power. She is not the passive spectator that Belle is. She does not choose the humdrum future; she chooses to embrace the bestial freedom that the Tiger has and that she loves in him. It is a complementary narrative to The Courtship or Mr. Lyon, presenting an alternative ending where love does not humanise, but reveals the hidden bestial side in us.

Perhaps the most direct reference to the Cocteau film is the diamond tears. As Belle weeps over her sick father, her tears turn to diamonds. This is the gift the Beast bestows upon her: his riches are hers and hers alone, because riches and beauty mean little to her. For Carter, this power is given to her beast. He gifts Beauty his diamond tears, which she rejects for the objectification. It is only when she accepts the Tiger as beast and her lover that the diamonds become something valuable to her—they revert back to tears, and show that it is genuine emotion and respect that she yearned for.

Cocteau’s film is ultimately a simple tale with a moral that beauty is not skin deep, and vain women do not get happy endings. Carter takes this message and politicises it. Men who see women as beautiful, exchangeable objects lose the most, and those who see them as people will earn their love. Both end with surreal images: a woman licked bare to reveal her true animal side, and a handsome prince taking his bride in his arms and flying away. Cocteau asks us to view his work as a child might; Carter asks us to view her work as woman might.

References

Carter, A. (2015). The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories: 75th-Anniversary Edition. New York: Penguin Book

Cocteau, J. (1947). Once Upon a Time—French Poet Explains His Filming of a Fairy Tale.

Hogan, D. (1997). Dark Romance: Sexuality in the Horror Film. Jefferson: McFarland.

Simpson, H. (2006). Femme Fatale. Available: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/jun/24/classics.angelacarter. Last accessed 24th Oct 2015.

 

La Belle et la Bête (1946). [DVD] Jean Cocteau, France: Criterion.

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