Monday, May 18, 2009

la belle et la bete

I was looking at one of the gorgeous kid's books we have in the shop at the moment - a beautifully illustrated version of a dark medieval fairy tale.

It reminded me of the time I was reviewing for the local paper and the editor forced me to go see a local production of Beauty and the Beast. Yes. You heard me a local amateur theatre production of Beauty and the Beast.

I was like ... Aw... Do I HAVE to?

And they were like ... No, of course you don't have to. And you don't have to do anything for us ever again either ...

Then I was like … OK! OK! I'll go watch the talentless local show-off hacks bring to life an immortal Disney classic…

You know what I hate most about immortal Disney classics?

They're immortal.

Jeez! Die already, Nambi Bambi and Stuperrella! And somebody disconnect Sleeping Beauty's life support system, for god's sake!

But guess what? While the music for Disney's immortal classic Beauty and the Beast was, is and always will be bloody atrocious, and the sweetness of the tweaked for the twenty first century storyline almost requires an insulin shot to process, it's a phenomenal yarn!

Where do I start? There's a such a lot to this tale of trauma and transcendence. Such a lot that a girl who was always considered nice enough but kind of weird, who always nearly, but never quite, fit anywhere she went, a girl with nameless longings and an awful fascination for the beastliness of life, could identify with. In short, a girl like me.

First of all there is a handsome prince, of course. But the handsome prince happens to a prick who thinks he is better than everyone else. He's cruel to an old woman who, unfortunately for him, is an enchantress. She turns him into a beast to teach him a lesson and her spell has a punchline – he shall remain a beast until he genuinely loves someone who genuinely loves him in return. So you have a beast in a suit, a bitter man-beast with no manners nor consideration for others. A man beast who shakes his fist at cruel fate and blames everybody else for his beastliness.

How Freudian can you get?

Enter Belle, a girl who doesn’t fit in, who is a little bit different, who the lovely mob of plebs in the village take great pleasure in mocking.

And so of course they fall in love and both are transformed. Blah blah blah – how banal and so forth. How boring! And yet, it’s a true thing, the transformational power of love. It may be the truest thing in the whole world. I’ve seen it happen time and time again in others and even had it happen to me. There was not a thing in the world that could have made me willingly leave a warm bed in the middle of a cold night till I was changed forever, for the better, by the overwhelming love of a baby who needed me.

Anyhow, for Belle and the Beast, it’s not the normal course of an affair at all. They despise each other at the start and must work their way through the whole beastliness issue before coming to accept both themselves and each other. Then, of course, he is transformed and voila! - he is actually a gorgeous human being underneath the selfishness – as are we all!

The original story was written in France in the 1700s by a writer named Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. It was a dark tale full of all sorts of Jungian shadows. It was abridged and lightened up about twenty years later by Jeane-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and I’d like to complain about this whitewashing of the story but in fact, it’s unlikely we’d know the story at all if it hadn’t been homogenised for public taste.

“Villeneuve's version of the tale also differs from Leprince de Beaumont's in its eroticism and its insistence on the Beast's monstrosity. Villeneuve makes explicit the transgressive sexual union at the heart of this tale. Not only does the Beast repeatedly ask Belle to sleep with him (in Leprince de Beaumont's version he asks her to marry him), but Belle has pleasurable dreams of being courted by a handsome prince. The transgressiveness of these descriptions is intensified by details of the Beast's frightening appearance …”

I wish I had enough French to understand the original story. But I don’t so I will have to make do with pale translations. Jean Cocteau apparently made a fabulous film version called La Belle et La Bete in the 40s. If I were just a little more of a film geek, I might buy it. But alas, I too am a pale imitation of a true film geek and will have to make do with the pale imitation of the stage version that I saw at the local theatre.

Imagine - a story with a truth so strong that not even an amateur theatre company and an overdose of Disney tunes could kill it!

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