A Beauty and the Beast marathon:  this afternoon I taught Angela Carter’s “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” to my fiction class, and in the evening, sat down with Jean Cocteau’s version.  And while my students easily identified the fairy tale as the inspiration for Carter’s story, their more common frame of reference was the Disney animated version.  Only one or two had seen Cocteau’s version.  What, no one remembers the TV show with Ron  Perelman and Linda Hamilton from the 80s?

But this is the way with the retelling stories:  one version supplants the other, even as it informs it, influences it.  The original, written in the 18th century by a governess, Mme. Leprince de Beaumont, is presumed to be an allegory about arranged marriage — how a woman forced into a relationship can discover the soft, cuddly interior of an otherwise ugly husband.  Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment, suggests that the original story was an Oedipal tale, as Beauty must overcome her fixation on her father and move into adulthood.  Cocteau emphasizes the Beast’s interior struggle as he wrestles with questions of identity:  is he a man (courtly, noble) or a beast (overly sexualized, fond of ripping out deer throats and appearing in her bedroom)?  Carter transforms the story into one of feminine empowerment:  Beauty, after all, is the one with the power, living a full life while a shy, weakened Beast withers without her.  And Disney… well, Disney used it to  help usher in the cash cow Princess marketing scheme.

Cocteau’s own vision — of flowing, diaphanous curtains; of living statues; of surreal opulence and rough country life — still enchants.  For instance, where can I buy a ‘hunky arm’ candelabra?  But nowadays, it reminds me of Bonnie Tyler’s video for “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” I know, I know:  from the sublime to the ridiculous. But, honestly, I am more familiar with the Disney version myself.  I was in high school when it came out, and at the time, my sister and I had a standing promise to see all the animated Disney movies together, and we watched a good run, from The Little Mermaid to Mulan.

So, yes, my memories of Beauty and the Beast are of dancing flatware, Angela Lansbury in teapot form, and the scene of Beauty and the Beast dancing, while a computer-enhanced constellation circles above them.  Yes, that damned theme song is stuck in my head, and I’m attempting to dislodge it right now.  And, yes, I might have gotten a little weepy at the very end, as Beauty hunches over the dying Beast before he transforms into, as Sir Christopher Frayling says on the commentary, “a Chippendales dancer.”  But from Cocteau, I will remember the carefully framed tableaus, the fairy tale smoke and fog, the mirror effects, the tree branches opening up like a curtain.  And, of course, those moving statues that seem to whisper, “Turn around, bright eyes.”

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