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.

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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A Yellow Dress

 

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The live-action adaptation of Belle’s iconic dress was revealed a while ago and I have been mulling it over for a while. I think it’s going to bug me. Particularly when she’s joined by the Beast in his gold-embroidered blue coat and swathes of lace, her dress looks too flimsy, too simple, too contemporary.

Emma Watson had a say in the dress. In Entertainment Weekly, she says, “I really embraced working on the dress, making sure that it was utterly whimsical, and magical.” The problem is, it just doesn’t look that whimsical and in a film that so far appears to evoke the 18th century so beautifully, it simply doesn’t fit. Jacqueline Durran says, “In Emma’s reinterpretation, Belle is an active princess. She did not want a dress that was corseted or that would impede her in any way.” Of course, women in the 18th century were active. Corsets were often worn sensibly, loosely laced. They provided the necessary structure for the gowns of the period, particularly taking into account the lack of modern underwear. Women of all classes wore corsets and, of course, the fashions of the time, and many of those women performed physical tasks. They worked and they played. Certainly, women in magnificent gowns were capable of dancing. There seems to be a basic disconnect with the lived reality of 18th century fashion. Furthermore, the dress that Belle wears needs to be the most fantastical concoction. It needs to be rich and adorned. The image below of Louis XV’s mistress is from the decade or so after publication of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s “Beauty and the Beast” (1740) and gives an idea of the elaborate nature of aristocratic fashion. It simply wasn’t minimalist.

François Boucher portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour

François Boucher portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour

 

The stage productions of Beauty and the Beast have been better at capturing the amazing concoction of the dress. I particularly admire more recent productions.

The Dutch 2015 production with Edwin Jonker and Anouk Maas

The Dutch 2015 production with Edwin Jonker and Anouk Maas

The gown sparkles, as you can see from the trailer, and, of course, Maas is able to sing and dance in it. I’d even hazard that the stage Beast is more attractive than what looks like a CGI’d Beast from the film.

The Future of Fairy Tale in Film

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The other week, the Monash Fairy Tale Salon set off to see the Christophe Gans La Belle et la Bête (2014). It is a scrumptious film and while some found the transformed dogs a little too on the nose and the emotional transformation of the Beast a little undercooked, the visuals were more than enough to delight a fairy tale fan. I particularly loved the giant stone sculptures that were the Beast’s hunting comrades transformed and Beauty’s devotion to her pumpkin patch. As always, the Beast is better as a Beast. It’s always a little disappointing when he becomes a prince again.

There is a lovely, short piece on animal transformation on the Fairy Tale Review site, particularly notable for including female examples.

There is so much cinematic potential in animal transformation and while I’ve loved watching multiple versions of the Beauty and the Beast narrative, I really would love to see filmmakers break out a little.

What about d’Aulnoy’s The White Cat, for instance?

1877

1877

Not only would it be a film beloved of cat people everywhere, but whenever I read about the disembodied hands, I think of Labyrinth (1986), so I can see definite potential!

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Not to mention d’Aulnoy’s other transformed Princess, Babiole.

a9442These tales have largely fallen out of our popular fairy tale corpus, but they’re amazing tales and have so much to offer the adventurous filmmaker.

Women, Fashion & Pleasure

There’s an excellent lecture available online: “The Crinoline Cage” by Professor Lynda Nead. Speaking to the Victorian era, Nead says that fashion “gave women access to a bodily language that involved imaginative projection and fantasy […] Like the layers of clothes and folds of fabric, the pleasures of fashionable dress for the women who wore it and the women who write about it today, are multiple and sensual, involving sight, sound and above all, touch.”

The lecture is particularly enjoyable and elucidates an aspect of feminine fashion that simply isn’t discussed enough: pleasure. High heels, corsets and crinolines are often interpreted as patriarchal constructs with which to restrict, confine and contain women. Moreover, there is often a perception that feminine fashion is designed for normative masculine pleasure: pleasure being in the viewing rather than the wearing. Such interpretations often contribute to the understanding of feminine fashion in fairy tales. Take for instance “Donkeyskin.” The heroine is in disguise, wearing her filthy donkeyskin as she labours. However, in her free time, she takes out her princess finery and dresses up in her lowly room. Perrault, however, disrupts her personal pleasure by having the prince play peeping tom and, moreover, intimates that the princess is aware of the gaze and performs to it. Consequently, Perrault makes it appear that she is dressing for the prince’s gaze. However, there are those few moments before the prince arrives when the princess is choosing to dress only to please herself. In those few moments, she is clearly dressing for her own, personal pleasure.

In this image from "Peau d'Âne" (1970), the princess sets up a mirror to admire herself in private.

In this image from “Peau d’Âne” (1970), the princess sets up a mirror to admire herself in private.

Many fairy tales contain scenes in which the heroine dresses for her own pleasure. In Villeneuve’s “Beauty and the Beast,” the heroine is provided with an extensive wardrobe: “As the slightest desires of Beauty appeared to be anticipated, she bestowed more care upon her toilet, although certain that no one could see her. But she owed this attention to herself, and it was a pleasure to her to dress herself in the habits of all the various nations on the face of the earth” (Planché, Four and Twenty Fairy Tales, 258). In this passage, Villeneuve quite clearly addresses the pleasure the heroine attains from experimenting with fashion. Indeed, Villeneuve insists that she owes this to herself.

For further reading on the topic, Sharon Marcus’s Between Women is a fascinating insight into fashion magazines and their appeal to the female gaze and is just one of many good starting points.