Getting Gaston Right

(Note: some spoilers for the recently released film.)

Everyone who knows me knows I was looking forward to seeing Gaston in Beauty and the Beast (2017). I have often joked that my PhD thesis was inspired by Gaston’s biceps and it’s actually, absolutely true. I was really interested in how the transition from animation to stage production was achieved and Gaston’s sheer physicality in the animated feature made a great case study. I won’t deny that research was fun. I took Eisenstein’s theory of plasticity in animation and applied it to theatrical performance.

I felt confident about Luke Evans’ casting from the moment I saw him singing with Australia’s first Gaston, Hugh Jackman, on the Jonathan Ross Show. The big expressions and gestures? The physique? The deep voice? Check, check, check.

 

Jacqueline Durran retained Gaston’s colour palette for the film, particularly that explosive red (my PhD supervisor was in stitches when he noticed I’d written that the colours of Gaston’s costume detonated strength and violence). The transition from animation is particularly successful. Stage productions replicated the cartoonish appearance of Gaston’s wardrobe with its bright, bright reds and yellows, and even added a little extra definition to pectoral and stomach muscles with some judicious padding and painting. Durran’s costume for Gaston is earthier and more wearable, so to speak. The suggestion of the military about his frock coats and the loose linen shirts shift attention from his physical to his sartorial display, which works just as well for the character. He remains larger than life without pumping up his biceps to rival Popeye’s.

It’s difficult to pin down why Gaston is such an attractive figure, despite being completely awful, malicious, and terrifying. I remember speaking to one actor who had played Gaston and he professed to being very confused about the women who gathered at the stage door to see him! Yet, there it is. Indeed, recently Gaston proved a hit at Disney World, as reported by GQ. And on io9, Katharine Trendacosta argued for a Gaston prequel: “It wasn’t exactly that Gaston had depth so much as he walked a line of menacing and hilarious that just worked.” Emily Asher-Perrin on Tor.com further reflects: “Luke Evans gives a fantastic turn as Gaston, but it isn’t merely his performance that stands out—it is that manner in which the script addresses Gaston’s toxic masculinity with far defter strokes that its predecessor. Gaston isn’t just some big burly alpha male who gets what he wants with the application of muscle and bullheadedness; the film reveals this construction to be a lie, and instead chooses to focus on how men like Gaston truly operate in the world.” Perhaps it’s that latter point that makes him all the more chilling. The film, while allowing us to laugh at his brazen narcissism, also offered us the opportunity to baulk at his malice and manipulation. The film went deeper into his villainy by showing how it operated in the community itself. This was no solo-villain, living on the fringes of society like a Maleficent or Ursula or Scar. This is a villain in complete command of the populace and they love him, even as he despises them.

The truly terrifying aspect of Gaston is perhaps that I realise I’m fascinated by him too.

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Why Is Belle Indecent?

This is a post about Belle’s drawers, in a way. Again, please note, minor spoilers regarding the recently released film, Beauty and the Beast (2017).

One of the things that struck me in the film was that Belle was often running about with her underwear showing! How embarrassing! This was, of course, an effort to create a more ‘feminist’ wardrobe for the active heroine, but for a viewer familiar with fashion history, it could be perplexing. There were a flurry of articles about Emma Watson not wearing a corset, ascribing this to her desire for Belle to be unimpeded and active. However, corsets of the time were designed to support women’s activity and… basically… to support their bosoms! There were no bras. Corsets helped prevent painful bouncing situations. (Hilary Davidson has an interesting Twitter thread on the issue.)

The animated film was not, needless to say, historically accurate and there’s no reason for the film to be so. However, the film does reproduce the intricacies of eighteenth century fashion, so Belle’s fashion choices do strike me as overtly anachronistic.* No wonder the villagers thought she was odd!

In an interview for Fashionista, costume designer, Jacqueline Durran, discussed many of the choices.

Durran: “We took elements of those 18th century things and added them to Belle. So her pockets, for instance, are an 18th century thing. It’s just that people didn’t wear them outside like she does. They wore them inside the dress, hidden. But we just put them on the outside [like a tool belt] to look extra useful.”

Okay, pockets as tool belt. That’s fine. However, imagine the ‘magic’ of whipping her tools from her skirts! The pockets were accessible and useful to the wearer, but were more difficult for thieves to pick. It would have been very odd in the period for Belle to be wearing pockets outside her skirts.

Durran: “And she had her skirt that she hikes up into waist and, to make that possible, she wears bloomers underneath, which are almost like her wearing trousers. But she doesn’t wear trousers because she’s a girl in the 18th century.”

The ‘hike’ really did kind of annoy me. It looked like she had her skirts caught in her knickers! I’m sorry. But it was rather indecent in a village of eighteenth-century costumes. The ‘trousers’ were light and flimsy and looked like the undergarments that would emerge particularly in the late eighteenth-century for women. These were, however, at the time often regarded as racy and even indecent, rather than as liberating for an active woman. Women certainly wouldn’t have shown their bloomers while walking down the street at that time – it would be the equivalent of a woman walking down the street in her knickers today, really. And, in fact, trousers weren’t entirely unknown in a woman’s wardrobe of the time. Marie-Antoinette, after all, wore trousers for riding, as evident in Brun’s painting:

An actual pair of trousers would have looked much better than a skirt hiked to reveal flimsy bloomers that probably wouldn’t have withstood all that horseback riding. Imagine Belle’s poor thighs! A sturdier material for the bloomers may have been a nice note to the later Bloomers movement, too, which definitely had feminist motivations.

I’ve already blogged about my concerns with the yellow ballgown. It did look pretty and it was better in motion, particularly from the back, but a little more oomph would have balanced Belle with the Beast. The lightness of the satin organza, painted in gold rather than embroidered, did look pretty and floaty, but I still longed for the textile splendor of the gowns of the period, particularly next to the richness of the Beast’s wardrobe. However, it’s when she rips her skirts off that the problems really start. She’s running about in her chemise and petticoats – her underwear, basically. Sometimes petticoats and chemises were worn to show – to peep out from the intricately laced and flounced gowns, however, not really to be worn on their own.** It’s a chemise and undergarments, furthermore, that don’t fully look like they were worn beneath the gown in question, as a friend seeing the film with me noted. Not to mention that along the way she has picked up some boots. If she changed for boots, couldn’t she have changed the gown to something more practical, rather than later rip it off and run about in underwear? An eighteenth-century gown would have taken a little while to unlace from, but Belle’s gown seemed simple enough to take off.

The concluding ballroom scene also featured an anachronistic Belle. White and cream dominated among the gowns of the supporting women and the floral print of Belle’s white, semi-transparent gown was consequently a bit lost, particularly when the prince is wearing a beautiful blue brocade with silver lacing that is entirely in keeping with the period. Anachronisms are not unusual in costume design – Outlander rather cleverly plays upon them – and Beauty and the Beast is certainly not authentically eighteenth-century. However, I couldn’t help but think Belle was consistently anachronistic in a way that the other characters were not. This is partly a conscious move, but not altogether successful.

This is in keeping with a few other choices designed to make Belle more active, but that, to me at least, fell a little flat. There was much discussion of Belle becoming an inventor. She does rig a kind of washing machine to do her laundry, but she doesn’t share this innovation with the other women and the mechanics of her rig would monopolise the fountain, making it unlikely to be a real time-saving device for anyone but Belle herself. There’s no indication that she’s about to run out and receive a patent for her device, either, unlike, for example, eighteenth-century inventor, Sybilla Righton Masters. It does give Belle a chance to teach a young girl to read, but her attempt is easily frustrated by the male teacher.

The magical ‘book’ that can transport Belle and the Beast to Paris has antecedents in earlier tales in which Beauty is able to watch operas and plays from around Europe in the Beast’s castle. In Planché’s translation of Villeneuve’s tale, he describes the technology that permits Beauty to see all kinds of theatrical entertainments. It sounds oddly like television!

What does Belle, our heroine who longs for the greater world, do with this magic? Beast is excited to arrive in Paris, but they land in a tiny attic and it turns out that Belle used this magic simply to discover the truth about what happened to her mother. This is certainly laudable, but again, the focus is upon Belle. For a heroine who longs for more, she is remarkably centred on her own self. Once she finds out her history, she just wants to go home. Even though Notre-Dame is right outside the window! Perhaps, as the Beast suggests, it’s too touristy!

I did enjoy the film, don’t get me wrong. The problem is, I think the male characters became more interesting! The Beast certainly became more fully fleshed out and I did love the portrayal of the Beast as a wicked young Prince, in particular. The make-up was gorgeous! Gaston hit all the right notes, too. However, in a tale that celebrates Beauty, I felt she became rather lost, vocally and sartorially.

 

 

*I was disappointed that in ballroom scenes, the women wore white and cream gowns. The gowns of the period were a festival of colour and while the white gowns drew attention to the prince, they were also a little less exciting than they could have been. Of course, replicating historical fashions is always problematic for fairy-tale film. The Slipper and the Rose (1976) populates its ballroom scenes with pastel confections, meaning that its Cinderella doesn’t really stand out as much as she might.

** The chemise a la reine would have been an interesting fashion note for Belle to have adopted. A simpler, unstructured gown, it was popularised by Marie-Antoinette.

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What Could Belle Read?

Fragonard, The Reader

(Note: some minor spoilers of the recently released film.)

Beauty has always been a reader. Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve tells us Beauty enjoys reading and was deprived of the pleasure when her father was obliged to sell his books. Beauty is delighted to find a great library in the Beast’s castle: “Her great taste for study could easily be satisfied in this place, and could easily guarantee her against the dulness [sic] consequent on solitude” (Planché, Four and Twenty Fairy Tales). The 1991 Disney film, Beauty and the Beast, made much of Belle’s love of reading, promoting her literary interests as a feminist quality. Moreover, Belle is reading a fairy tale in the animated film, one in which the heroine fails to recognise her prince charming before chapter three. It is a metafictional nod that actually occurs in the tale’s pre-history.

Before Villeneuve presented “Beauty and the Beast” to the world, tales of young women and beasts were already common fodder for fairy tale authors. Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy presents us with two interesting antecedents for the tale, “The Ram” and “The Green Serpent.” In “The Ram,” Merveilleuse is exiled by her father, the king, for not showing him love and respect in the grandiloquent manner he expects. She finds herself in a pastoral paradise of streams running with Spanish wine, trees hung with dressed partridges, and dark places where it rains lobsters and white pudding. This freakish landscape is presided over by the Ram, a prince who has been transformed into a sheep. He is bedecked in diamonds and pearls and carries her off in his great, verdant pumpkin coach, while his companions, a whole herd of enchanted sheep, sip coffee and sherbets. The tale follows the path of “Beauty and the Beast,” with Merveilleuse returning for her sisters’ weddings under assurances of later rejoining the Ram. However, her father recognises her and is so contrite, he presents Merveilleuse with his very own crown. She forgets all about the Ram in the excitement of becoming Queen and the Ram consequently dies of a broken heart at the gates of the palace. So much for romance.

It is “The Green Serpent,” however, that foreshadows “Beauty and the Beast” more closely. The heroine, Laidronette, is cursed to be ugly by a fairy who has a complex about her height. Indeed, Laidronette’s name indicates her ugliness, not her beauty. She chooses to remove herself from court, but on her travels becomes lost at sea. The Green Serpent wishes to help her, but she finds him too monstrous and rejects him, even in her plight. Instead of being lost, however, she is rescued and bestowed in an incredible palace, courted by an invisible lover who, of course, is the serpent. She reads a book about Psyche and Cupid, but while she sensibly believes she should learn the lesson of the tale and not seek to uncover the nature of her mysterious lover, her family convinces her otherwise. It is the kind of metafictional twist we see in the animated film three hundred years later. Laidronette’s actions unwittingly abort the breaking of the curse upon the prince/serpent and so she must go through a series of trials to be able to finally, consciously, break it. In the process, she is herself made beautiful.

The live action Beauty and the Beast (2017) retains the sung line about the fairy tale, but there are so many other literary references, that it loses some of its power. It is terrific to see a wider range of reading represented. I was, nonetheless, a little disappointed to see more focus on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which doesn’t work metafictionally with Belle’s own story. I did enjoy the Beast’s response to it, however, and his immediate determination to introduce her to some wider reading! Quite so! Nonetheless, it would have been nice to see more female authors represented – for instance, rather than give Villeneuve’s name to the patriarchal horror that is Belle’s village, why not allow Belle to read Villeneuve’s actual literary works? The heroines of previous tales rely upon feminine advice and stories in understanding their own fates. Indeed, when Beast is caught reading about Arthur and Guinevere – Belle teasing him that it’s a romance – it becomes more about Beast reading about male characters and interests.

What could Belle be reading? Of course, it would be delightful if she were reading Villeneuve’s “Beauty and the Beast” or even d’Aulnoy’s “The Green Serpent” or “The Ram,” but here are some other options:

Margaret Cavendish, The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World or The Female Academy

Aphra Behn, The Fair Jilt

Henriette-Julie de Murat, “The Pig King” or “Bearskin” (in this case, Beauty is in animal form)

Marie-Jeanne Lhéritier, “Marmoisan” or “The adventures of the discreet princess”

Claudine Alexandrine Guerin de Tencin, The Siege of Calais

Françoise de Graffigny, Letters from a Peruvian Woman

Eliza Haywood, Fantomina; or Love in a Maze

Louise d’Épinay, L’Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant,

Of course, the film does plump for more recognisable works, although “A Crystal Forest” by William Sharp is rather more obscure and was actually written much later than the period in which the film is ostensibly set. Part of the problem, however, is that people aren’t exposed to the history of women’s writing to the degree they are exposed to men’s writing. Indeed, I was somewhat vexed to see Paul Young quoted in a Huffington Post piece on the film: ““[’Beauty and the Beast’ is] a story written and published by a woman, with a strong female character at its lead, who is very reflective and intelligent and she makes her own choices, which is not something you saw in French literature or in French society at the time.” Perhaps it was not as common or well-known, but it was certainly not completely unknown in the eighteenth century or even earlier.

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