Beauty and the Beast is the Best Version of a Tale as Old as Time

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Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind

And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.

Nor hath love’s mind of any judgement taste;

Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste.

And therefore is love said to be a child

Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.”

During her captivity at his châteaux, Belle reads the above excerpt from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The blindness of lasting love to initial or outward appearances is in keeping with the central thesis of both the film and the French fairy tale on which it was based. But beyond the obvious relevance, the quote’s focus not merely on Love but its personification in the Roman god Cupid is particularly appropriate, as Apuleius’ myth of Cupid and Psyche remains one of the earliest extant variations of the beauty/beast motif and served as an influence for Villeneuve when writing La Belle et la Bête.

Though the perfectly paced plot and sonorous score are lifted directly out of the beloved Renaissance-era animated musical, this live-action adaptation takes liberties with many of the finer details, as in the above example, and in doing so achieves an even greater depth than its cartoon counterpart.

My favorite of these subtle details comes from the very first frame of the film. Indeed, before the movie properly begins, during the Disney title card. Perched above the pinnacle of what at first appears to be Cinderella’s castle is the statue of an angel, which I had not recalled being there before. As the camera panned back to reveal the entire structure, it becomes evident that this palace of the Prince who will soon become the Beast. Later, when we get our first glimpse of interior after the curse had been cast, ornately-carved dragons mark the bottom of the banisters of the main stairwell. Knowing most other objects in the abode to be alive, I waited in eager anticipation for the climactic battle when this Chekov’s Gun would surely have its trigger pulled, the stone serpents let loose upon the pitchfork-wielding townsfolk.

While this never occurred, what the film does with the dragons is even better yet. When the sorceresses’ spell is finally broken, not only the Prince and his servants are restored, but the architecture is as well, the dragons transforming into statues of Saint Michael the Archangel in his traditional pose: his spear pointed downward, slaying the biblical Beast from the Book of Revelation. Just as the mythological allusion to Cupid spoke to the film’s primary theme of seeing past appearances, so too does this scriptural reference speak to it secondary theme of slaying man’s base and brutish nature. But whereas John cast the conflict in cosmological terms of good’s eschatological victory over evil, Villeneuve, Beaumont, and Disney reframe such as femininity triumphing over hypermasculinity, with the anger and aggression of the Beast dying to Belle’s beauteousness and gentle kindness even before his outward rebirth. As a more modern telling of the tale explained, “It was Beauty that killed Beast.”

Indeed, it was while reading Revelation in its original that my Ancient Greek classmates conferred upon me the nickname “The Beast,” my surname Thériault being a French cognate of the Greek word θηρίο meaning “beast.” Ever since I’ve held a particular fondness for this fairy-tale above all others, even authoring my own variant from the perspective of the Beast. And that was before meeting a veritable Belle and Gaston both and living out the tale to tragic conclusion, sans any happily ever after. As such, I found one of the film’s new numbers even more affecting than any off the original soundtrack (save the eponymous “Beauty and the Beast”). “Evermore”, a soliloquous song by the Beast as he watches Belle leave his life with no illusions of her ever returning – and surely never returning his love – features poignantly heartbreaking lyrics:

I’ll never shake away the pain;

I close my eyes but she’s still there.

I let her steal into my melancholy heart;

It’s more than I can bear.

Now I know she’ll never leave me,

Even as she runs away.

She will still torment me, call me,

Hurt me, move me, come what may.

Wasting in my lonely tower,

Waiting by an open door,

I’ll fool myself she’ll walk right in,

And as the long, long nights begin,

I’ll think of all that might have been,

Waiting here for evermore.

I rage against the trials of love,

I curse the fading of the light.

Though she’s already flown so far beyond my reach,

She’s never out of sight.”

As should be evident, I purchased the soundtrack after exiting the theater – the first time I’ve done so since Les Misérables – and though I never listen to music while writing, I’ve had it on repeat in penning this review. Most animation aficionados are in agreement that 1991’s Beauty and the Beast has the best of Disney musicals’ many masterful scores – and I have a particular affection for the original, as the single was playing on cassette as I received my first kiss – but there can be no doubt or disagreement that the live action’s score is yet another instance in which it improves upon perfection.

The one exception to this is in the casting of Emma Watson as Belle. She is surely pretty and possesses a plainness altogether appropriate to her provincial provenance, but lacks the particular pulchritudinous which one associates with the character. In the film’s funniest line, Gaston remarks to Le Fou, “She’s the only girl that gives me that sense of… hmmm…” Le Fou offers, “Je ne sais quoi?” to which Gaston replies, “I don’t know what that means.” And yet, it’s a certain je ne sais quoi that’s exactly what Watson wants for.

Alternatively, Luke Evens – save for his cartoon counterpart’s slightly stronger chin and bigger biceps – is Gaston incarnated. And though he turns a villainous heel halfway through, there’s something sympathetic at the start of the character’s arc. Whereas the other townsfolk consider Belle a “most peculiar mademoiselle,” Gaston aspires after her, recognizing her as superlatively special, that she alone would make a worthy wife for him. He refuses to settle for second best, and to this inclination I can relate. Even with respect to the Gaston-type I squared off against, I always respected my foe for his recognition of our Belle’s beauty, and it was only when he faltered in his affections – as in the film when the character acts coldly towards Maurice – that the enmity between he and I grew irreconcilably, placing us on a path to a climatic confrontation.

Speaking of Gaston, much controversy has surrounded the alterations to his friend Le Fou. While he’s fairly flamboyant, to be sure, such is played appropriately to sidekick-archetype he fills and is subtle enough to be appropriate to the period. Far more needlessly pandering and narratively immersion-breaking is the demographic diversity of the leafy little hamlet of Villeneuve (named for the fairy-tale’s author). Belle rhapsodizes about its provinciality, but this “little town with little people” somewhere in the heart of France seemingly hosts a surprising number of denizens from ethnicities exotic to Europe. The same is true of the Prince’s palace, but that a castle should be so cosmopolitan requires much less suspension of disbelief (plus any excuses to cast Gugu Mbatha-Raw is valid in my estimation).

The final notable change is the expansion of the Enchantress’ role, who is here given the name Agathe, from the Greek ἀγαθός meaning “Goodness,” which, along with Beauty, is among the three Transcendentals (those things which are ends in themselves). The naming of a character essentially as “Goodness” in a story in which the protagonist’s name translates as Beauty is absolutely intentional. Just as Keats argued for the equivalence of Beauty and Truth (the third Transcendental), many philosophers before and since have similarly posited a close correspondence between Beauty and Goodness. As such, Agathe’s inclusion may be seen as affirmation of the value of aesthetics, not as a distraction from inner beauty but as the outward expression of it. The two properly complement one another, and the absence of either imbrutes Man, as seen oppositely in Gaston (who exemplifies masculine beauty sans morality) and the Beast (a virtuous soul hidden by a hideous visage). Thus, the transfiguration of the Beast back to the Prince does not undermine the message of the movie but affirms it all the more.

The are some scholars who surmise that the oldest variant of the Beauty and Beast story dates back about 4,000 years ago. It is, if not a “tale as old as time,” nevertheless nearly a “song old as rhyme.” I’ve read quite a few of the more famous versions, including Villeneuve and Beaumont’s fairy tales, C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, and even penned my own The Beast and Beauty. And yet, even more than its animated antecedent, Disney’s latest live action masterpiece might well prove the definitive version.

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