Beauty and the Beast/ La Belle et La Bête: Between Novel and Film

This article will consider the role of vision and gender in the film, La Belle et La Bête (Jean Cocteau, 1946), and in the didactic fairytale novel, La Belle et La Bête (1756). Fairytales are ideological, drawing social outlines, which disciplines the reader. They are contained in worlds of fantasy, rich in symbolism. Both vision and gender play a major role in this fairytale, with the narrative being about mature sexual desire, exploring the visual pleasure of looking upon a man and seeing who he really is.

Both the fairytale and the film have a central female character in the narrative, Belle. At the beginning of the film version, the sisters are seen beautifying themselves, standing, as Belle is kneeling before them scrubbing the floor, dressed in rags. This shows that the sisters invite objectification; they are exhibiting themselves to the audience and to the male characters, since pleasure is ‘derived by the spectator gazing upon the female body[1]. This is further reinforced when the father departs for his vessel, the sisters are situated at the top of the stairs, where as Belle is placed at the bottom. This shows that Belle is rejecting the male gaze of the audience and of the characters, in particular Avenant.

In both the film and the novel, the mother is absent and is not mentioned. This causes problems for Belle, since she refuses to leave her father. This displays that she is in a pre-sexual state, suppressing her own sexuality and is unable to move away from oedipal desire. Consequently, in terms of scopophilia, which suggests that ‘visual pleasure equals sexual pleasure…for the male’[2], the male spectator is unable to gaze upon her, because she does not exhibit herself and has not reached an age of sexual maturity.

Nevertheless, the name Belle not only shows the simple storytelling of the fairytale, but it advertises her to the audience as a potential object of the male gaze. It suggests, as the male gaze is aggressive and assertive, that her female body is waiting to be inscribed with the male fantasy. Moreover, as the family has lost their fortune, Belle is forced into becoming a servant. She conforms to the patriarchal ideology of the woman, which is conventionally passive, by undertaking the household chores.

Despite her rejection of objectification and her costume, Belle achieves male attention. She is constructed as the protagonist, as she remains at the centre of the narrative. Conventionally, female characters are passive and objectified in order to cater for male audiences. The female spectator is therefore positioned bisexually, ‘identifying with the passive female character and that of the transvestite with the active male protagonist or hero’[3]. Yet, Belle’s rejection of the male gaze renders her impassive and when she first arrives at La Bête’s castle, the lighting is focused on her as she walks through the dark corridors. This places her at the centre of the audience’s focus, but she is performing in order to achieve the gaze, rather than exhibiting. This portrays her as active, subverting the conventional position of the passive female, circumventing a threat to the male spectator and indicating the anxiety of castration. The male spectator assumes the usual position of the female spectator, and is positioned bisexually, as they are forced to identify with the impassive female.

As the father sets off for the vessel, the sisters demand expensive items, such as ‘des robes, des palatines, des coiffures, et toutes sortes de bagatelles[4], in order to further objectify themselves. However, Belle is forced by her sisters into asking for an item, a rose. The rose is a symbol of her sexuality and her virginity. Although this symbolises that Belle trusts her father with her sexuality, the rose is problematic as it is important to the sexual predator, La Bête. It also shows to the male audience that she is recognising her female maturation, and that she is prepared to become the object of the male gaze. Belle sacrifices herself in order to confront the feat of male sexuality and rid her of the Oedipus complex.

In the novel, there is not a detailed description of the appearance of La Bête. He is only described as ‘un monstre’, ‘laide’ and ‘une Bête si horrible[5], leaving the reader to decide upon their interpretation of ugliness. In the film, La Bête is presented to the spectator in an animal condition, which is a visual representation of both repulsiveness and overt masculinity. He is viewed in juxtaposition to his horse, Le Magnifique, who displays the external beauty of an animal[6], in order to reinforce his ugliness. This ambiguous positioning of La Bête, who exhibits both animal and human qualities, provides no clear identification for the male spectator.

The novel shows that La Bête embodies ambisexuality, since ‘la bête’, the name which he insists on, is feminine. He is, however, referred to by both Belle’s father and Belle’s suitor Avenant, as ‘le monstre’, which is masculine. In the film, his costume is exuberant and ‘reflects noblewomen of the sixteenth century[7], which exhibits him to the spectator as female. Belle investigates him in search of his phallus, which is required, because the father and Avenant are dissimilar to him. Additionally, in the confrontation between the father and La Bête, the father kneels, and is seen from a low angle shot from the point of view of La Bête, which reinforces his power and presence over the father, coding him as male.

In terms of Narcissistic scopophilia, this gender ambiguity renders identification difficult for the male spectator as ‘he projects his look on to that of his like, his screen surrogate’[8]. The male spectator is unable to identify with the male protagonist, which places a boundary between the spectator and Belle. La Bête has his erotic look focused on Belle, but as the spectator cannot identify with him, the male members of the audience are unable to place their gaze upon her. They are not able to achieve visual pleasure.

In Belle’s first encounter with La Bête, she faints, rendering her completely passive for the first time. Typically, a woman’s ‘visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation[9], which allows the male spectator to gaze upon the female form. In spite of that, this fainting, due to La Bête’s exhibition, freezes the narrative, subverting the traditional use. This also occurs when La Bête appears at Belle’s room, covered in blood with his shirt ripped. He fills the frame, and is seen as fetishistic scopophilia, since he is displayed as a passive object through the gaze. This exhibition generates questions of sadism, given that it secures the audience attention and encourages sexual stimulation through sight to the female audience, encouraging female desire. This voyeuristic-scopophilic pleasure portrays him as passive.

In conventional Hollywood films, the male cannot bear to be looked upon as an erotic object and be contemplated in an assertive way. In order to combat the misrecognition of his gender identity and this gaze upon him, La Bête becomes overbearing at all times and ever-present. He proposes marriage to Belle several times as a means of assuming his identity as masculine[10], as marriage is a heterosexual discourse. The marriage would progress their relationship and progress the narrative, rendering La Bête as active. Furthermore, he provides her with many costumes and gifts, in order to exhibit Belle to the audience, and in turn portray her as passive.

The relationship between La Bête and Belle reverses the patriarchal roles, since she is the master in his castle and he is her servant. He kneels before her and provides for her. She no longer has to work in the household, which renders her active by subverting the patriarchal conventions, codifying her as male.

In the novel, La Bête provides Belle with a ring, which symbolises a patriarchal marriage, binding her to return to him once she has visited her father. It suggests that only when she has resolved her oedipal desire away from her father, she can return to the Beast. Conversely, in the film, he provides her with a key. The key is a phallic object, which represents her potential sexual awakening, but provides her with the power to progress the narrative. This phallic object portrays her as active, where as the ring pacifies her.

In the film, during Belle’s return, Avenant is seen without a shirt, which sexualises and erotises him. This exhibition renders him as passive, and is further reinforced when the sisters order him around, which portrays him as weak. In order to regain his masculinity, he steals the phallic key from Belle, which allows him to actively progress the narrative back to La Bête’s castle. The male is once again looked at on the level of the plot, rather than as a spectacle.

The novel depicts the transformation of La Bête into Prince Charming as positive and a reward, with the Beast ‘released from evil to emerge a new man, fit to be loved[11]. He is transfigured in order to conform to patriarchal society. The wedding of the characters restores the male gaze to the conventional active male and passive female.

The transformation in the film is problematic, since the death of another character, Avenant, is required to complete the transition. Avenant is shot by the statue of Diane in the back by an arrow, which transforms him into La Bête. The arrow is a phallic object and ‘is turned against the phallus-as-mark of the symbolic construction of subjectivity[12] by a female character. This therefore provides the female with power and reinforces the gaze in terms of power relations. It signifies that the female spectator has taken over the subjectivity and appropriates the gaze. The male character Avenant is punished for attempting to steal La Bête’s power, and in turn re-appropriate the gaze.

The novel depicts the looking as important, with Belle’s look of love, transforming La Bête into her notion of desire. This transforms the pleasure in looking back to the patriarchal convention of active male and passive female through the resulting marriage. The transformation also allows the male spectator to identify with the central male character, as unlike the film, he is not over-invested, which re-appropriates the subjectivity to the male viewer.

In the film, close-ups of the dying Beast generate sympathy in the audience, but after the transformation, the use of unsympathetic camerawork suggests that it is a disappointment for Belle. The transformation into Prince Charming is over determined and over invested, suggesting that the active female spectator has applied their fantasy onto the body of the male character, which is generally a masculine activity.

As the female spectator and Belle have attempted to take over the subjectivity, the transformation is an acceptance of the gaze as the Prince is too charming, identifying his as a spectacle. Belle’s disappointment could be because she must remain active, as the Prince is passive. Belle’s impassive previous actions, which signified the threat of castration, have lead to the subsequent castration of the Prince Charming.

The father conforms to the male gaze theory, since he refuses to be eroticised and progresses the narrative to La Bête’s castle, which justifies the spectator’s gaze. He is an active male, providing action as the motivation for the male spectator appropriating the gaze. He is the provider for the family, hence conforming to patriarchal ideology. In terms of scopophilia in the film, the sisters also conform to the male gaze, as they exhibit themselves and demand male sexual attention. They are, however, not seen as individuals, unlike Belle, but only as a pair, suggesting that they represent femininity as a social construct.

In La Bête’s castle, the human form seems to be fragmented, for example heads in the fireplace and arms as candelabras. In the fireplace, heads turn with their eyes open, focusing their gaze onto the character, for example Belle and the father, which in turn focuses the audience’s gaze. The heads and the eyes of statues seem to follow the characters as they are performing, for example dining or walking through corridors. This performance is associated with the active character, reinforcing that both Belle and the father are active. The eyes are a symbol of voyeurism, violating the character’s privacy. This could be a potential metaphor for the audience, supporting the active gaze and subjectivity of Belle.

The mirror plays a key role within the film, as both a metaphor for desire and of the unconscious. Traditionally, the mirror is used in terms of narcissism, but in this case, it is used in terms of voyeurism. It allows the characters to gaze upon others, in particular Belle, the father and La Bête, without their knowledge. This provides them with the power of subjectivity, which is usually assumed by the audience. La Bête uses the mirror to voyeuristically gaze upon Belle, which portrays her as an object of desire. Belle uses it in order to gaze upon her father, showing her oedipal fixation. When Belle gazes upon La Bête through the mirror for the last time, it shatters. This shattering suggests her sexual awakening and the shattering of the oedipal complex, transferring her oedipal desire for the father to her future husband.

The novel, La Belle et La Bête (1756), contains the look of love, which is patriarchal and therefore conforms to the conventions of active male and passive female. La Bête is a symbol of monstrosity and cannot be looked upon, which makes him active and Belle is seen in terms of masculine desire, which renders her passive. As a consequence, the spectator is the subject of the gaze and is culturally male, placing the female in an exhibitionist role. On the other hand, in La Belle et La Bête (1946), the gaze and the expression of sexuality do not conform to the patriarchal and western tradition. The cinematography constructs the female character Belle as impassive, providing her with a sense of agency and power. The male characters, such as Prince Charming and at times Avenant, are viewed as objects of the gaze and as passive. La Bête has conflicting gender issues and is controlled by the female, rendering him also as passive. The gaze is therefore seen as homo-erotic and shows that ‘the phallus is not a mark of construction of subjectivity’[13], allowing the female spectator to appropriate the gaze.

[1] Hayward, Susan (2000) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, page 319

[2] Hayward, Susan (2000) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, page 159

[3] Hayward, Susan (2000) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, page 319

[4] De Beaumont, Mme Le Prince (1756) La Belle et La Bête et autres contes, page 11

[5] De Beaumont, Mme Le Prince (1756) La Belle et La Bête et autres contes, page 15

[7] Hayward, Susan and Vincendeau, Ginette (1990) French Film: Texts and Contexts, page 130

[8] Mulvey, Laura (1975) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema article

[9] Mulvey, Laura (1975) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema article

[10] Hayward, Susan and Vincendeau, Ginette (1990) French Film: Texts and Contexts, page 127

[11] Warner, Marina (1995) From the Beast to the Blonde: on Fairytales and Their Tellers, page 291

[12] Hayward, Susan and Vincendeau, Ginette (1990) French Film: Texts and Contexts, page 133

[13] Hayward, Susan and Vincendeau, Ginette (1990) French Film: Texts and Contexts, page 134


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