by Charlotte Dovey
This film (“La Belle et La Bête: 1946, directed by Jean Cocteau”) begins by asking the viewer to have faith in stories, “artless things,” and they ask “artlessness” of the viewers, but art is never “artless;” it is representation and even deception itself, how to trick the viewer into thinking she sees something that is not real, and to do it with such things as lights, motion, cutting and overlaying multiple images, constructed sets that pretend to be real places but by definition staged, makeup and costumes to alter the appearance of the actors, and actors imitating other people’s characteristics and feelings. Yet, art such as this shows us truth through allegory and metaphor, through transmorphosis.
This film depicts how our characters, and correspondingly our fortunes, are transformed through vice and virtue. La Belle comes from a wealthy, noble family, but they have lost their fortune through overspending stemming from vanity and envy (her sisters), speculation that results from lack of prudence (her father and brother), as well as slothfulness (her brother and sisters), cowardice (her father), and gluttony (her brother). As the family members’ characters fall into decay, misfortune follows, bringing about even more vice because they respond to misfortune through vice, as it is all they know. Because they are La Belle’s kinsmen, their misfortune also befalls her. (In a sense, beauty is often related to or brings about vanity, envy, imprudence, etc, but here La Belle is also transcendent, spiritual beauty, akin to truth.)
The only person not subject to these vices is Belle, as she exhibits virtues (virtue indicates a skill in being human, much as in Aristotelean ethics virtues were based on the skill of humans to achieve golden means). And because she is pure-hearted and faithful, she is willing to sacrifice herself. Her virtues transform her fortunes – because she steps into her father’s place and is willing to die, she is saved, an allegory for religious transcendence. The beast does not kill her, but is kind – and in return she is kind to him and he transforms. His transformation transforms her fortunes, and through her, those of her unworthy family. Transcendent beauty and virtue, then, can ennoble and raise even the unworthiest of us. While this plot may not seem terribly believable in “real life,” if we consider it artlesslessly (and as art), it conveys truth in an allegory: Consider the family in debt due to vice and lack of forethought –one responsible person can make money and help the others get out of a financial hole, not by giving them money (as their vices would just ruin them again), but by managing it for them and teaching them to manage themselves.
It is worth noting here that while La Bête is a male beast, he is regarded an animal and this is feminized in French, and this also reflects his diminished power, from fallen prince to somewhat feminized beast, who becomes, to Belle, “ma bête,” (obviously, “my beast”).
Let us turn to La Bête’s five secrets of power, integral to the story’s meaning; these are the rose, the white horse, the mirror, the gloves, and the golden key. Each of these is associated with vices and virtues. In this story, the proper use of the power is virtue or skill in ruling (oneself and others), not vice; skill in transforming things and people into worth (value) or worthiness (moral value). Vice leads to transforming into something useless/undermining power.
The Rose – Our usual association with roses is in love and passion, but they also symbolize purity (as the Virgin Mary is often symbolized by a rose). In light of this, it makes sense that Belle would ask for a rose – she seeks both love and purity, two things she already possesses in abundance. However, plucking a rose can also symbolize conquest. This explains why the beast is enraged by Belle’s father plucking a rose without permission – it is a transgression against La Bête’s power and against his authority over his lands. As a Prince, he could not allow this to go unpunished any more than a Prince could forgive someone attempting to usurp his position or invade his land. This is why he gives the father a choice – his own death (state execution) or one of his daughters must compensate for the transgression, as politically motivated marriages were often used to unite feuding royal families and secure power. It is no wonder a rose is used in heraldry and has been the symbol of more than one royal family. A rose can also symbolize vice in the form of unchaste passions, that an unreasoning beast may be subject to but a reasoning person of power can overcome.
The white horse – A white horse symbolizes freedom that comes from wisdom and power. The white horse in the story has great power that will take the rider anywhere, but the horse must obey the person who rides him and the person must have the secret or the knowledge/wisdom to make him obey. Real freedom requires knowledge or it is mere whim; otherwise, the power lies with the horse, not the rider.
Unicorns, as an example of a white horse, symbolize great purity and spirituality. But the white horse can also symbolize death – it transports us from this world to the next. The world in this story is two worlds, the magic world inverts what we know of our world, and where it is day here it is night there. The magic world represents the underworld. Pegasus, for instance, was a pure white horse that could take its rider to the heavens/heaven, or to hades. The pale horse signifies the apocalypse. La Bête’s horse, then, signifies life and death as well as power and free will.
The Mirror – Mirrors reflect light to show us what we could not otherwise see. It gives us knowledge and truth as well as light. Mirrors also, however, symbolize fragmentation, a divided consciousness, as in self-consciousness. As in Lacan’s theory of mirrors, around the time a child understands that the image in a mirror is himself, he also starts regarding himself as a distinct entity from his mother. This leaves the developing child with a sense of division from his mother as well as a sense of self distinct from her. Mirrors also cannot show us ourselves in entirety, but as we look at one part we see only that part, so our consciousness of ourselves becomes fragmented: even an introspected person cannot see herself wholly. It is no small wonder that while the mirror in this story was able to tell the viewer the truth, it also fragmented into shards when La Bête is facing the reality of Belle’s absence, and he is dying (losing his consciousness and himself) at her loss. Mirrors also symbolize vanity, and as Narcissus destroyed himself by gazing too much at his own image, any of us can do the same: It is no accident that La Bête is depicted dying at the edge of a pool. (Interestingly, it is the same pool that La Belle scooped up water by which he could drink; itself a symbol of baptism and rebirth as well as the death of the bestial or vicious part of himself.)
The Gloves – Gloves symbolize high status and nobility as well as power and protection. They conversely symbolize concealment. La Bête has reason to conceal his hands – they are those of a beast. Hence, he hides his lower status (that of a beast) with the markings of a higher one (a nobleman).
These gloves smoked when La Bête killed his prey. When something smokes, this could symbolize purification, but it could also indicate obscuring the truth. It also marks destruction, as in a smoking ruin, yet also purification, as in a baptism by fire or the phoenix reborn from ashes. As we see in the end of the film, La Belle causes La Bête’s death through her departure, but her reappearance also causes his resurrection as a reformed person, no longer subject to his brutish shortcomings; she makes him whole and virtuous because she loves him, but she could only do so because he is likewise loving and capable of virtue. Here, she could be seen as symbolizing a Christ figure or the Virgin Mary.
The Golden Key – Keys demarcate boundaries – he who wields a key can keep away enemies and defend one’s castle and protect one’s treasure chest. A golden key also symbolizes wealth. Keys provide entry to doors that also symbolize other-worldliness, including death. It is no wonder that La Bête gives La Belle the golden key – in doing so, he gives over to her the power to destroy him, to take him through the portal to death/the other world. (Also, Freud has some interesting things to say about keys and locks. I shall leave these obvious symbols to your imagination if you are unfamiliar with them.)
What gives La Bête power, what sets him apart from other beasts, and what also sets rational beings apart from other beasts, is love/purity, free will/knowledge, self-awareness, social status (we are social beings), and the ability to mark boundaries.
The moral of this film is that through love, La Belle (truth/beauty) transforms the beast. It subdues and conquers the brutish unreasoning part of each of us and gives us power to pursue virtue, skill at living. Hence, at the end, the prince who was a beast but who is transformed takes La Belle to his kingdom and her sisters will hold her train – she and her husband will yield the power as benevolent rulers to guide and restrain the vicious.
© Copyright 2019, Metamorphorica