What do you do if you’re a celebrated gay male artist, living in Paris, France and your country has just gotten out from under being occupied by the meanest, blondest most homophobic sons-a-bitches in Europe (some of whom are themselves gay and partying up a storm at your bars, and your hangouts)? What do you do when your government caves to the Occupiers and says collaboration is a good thing, and there you are with all your queerness and your beautiful, brave boyfriend, who has already punched a Nazi-sympathizing art critic in the face because the critic trashed your work? What do you do when he (the boyfriend, Jean Marais) has to speak for you after the war, saying you really weren’t a collaborator (although you did make nice to those Germans sometimes, didn’t you)? What do you do with the horror that you know about and the horror you don’t know about? How do you make a movie that tells about how you collaborated a little with those bad-ass queer-hating motherfuckers, and that your boyfriend is not just handsome but courageous? And that you feel bad, but you also feel glad — really glad — to still be alive? And you’re glad that Paris is still standing and doesn’t look like Dresden?
This is what you do:
You choose a story from the 18th Century: the Age of Reason when Paris led the world in medicine and professional chess playing and ballet and philosophy. And fashion. You choose a story from that moment before the French Revolution and the Terror when things were looking good, and you pick a story by a woman, not a man, and it’s a
Because you want to talk about queerness and horror and beauty but people (like you) are so freaked out and depressed and guilty or else angry at the guilty or else freaked out because so many people they know are dead, or they are Jewish and totally traumatized, that they can’t handle the past.
So you decide to say “oh this story — it’s pretend. It’s just pretend, haha.”
But you sneak history in. Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont’s story dates from the Enlightenment, but you choose costumes and sets from the Renaissance. You go even further back in time: to a period of the religious wars in France. What a coincidence. A terrible moment in French history.
One thing standing in for the other. Remembering by indirection.
Next, you put wonderful Jean Marais in the cutest, glammest, fuzzy proto-bear-furry-type just a LITTLE bit scary costume, and give him some animal teeth, because that makes him look a little dangerous and you put him in a castle just chock a block with cute boy-parts.
And you give Jean a double part in your movie that will become famous and will influence everyone from Madonna to Disney. In your 1946 film Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et La Bête), you have Jean play the monster, who is good, and you have him play Beauty’s boyfriend, a gorgeous man, but evil: a selfish pretty boy, who gambles away the family money with Beauty’s brother — making Beauty and her father and sisters penniless.
And because you want your movie pretty for everyone, you pick a pretty girl to play Beauty (Josette Day). Beauty (la Belle) is the only character in the movie to act with consistent courage and a deep sense of loyalty. She braves and then saves the monster, who is good, and she rejects the evil boyfriend, who is killed by one of those magical living statues that populate the film.
Beauty gets everything, although she asks for only one thing: a rose. She gets that of course, and she gets Jean Marais in his scary costume lapping water out of her hand, and she gets Jean Marais as his beautiful self longing and dying for her.
In other words, she and we, the audience, get to have it both ways.
Having it both ways is, in part, what Cocteau’s film is about. The movie depicts monstrous desire and desire for the monster under cover, in the vast closet of a secret chateau where only few can enter and from which it is dangerous (if not impossible) to leave. Throughout the castle, imprisoned bodies display arms, hands, limbs and faces.
But to its credit, Cocteau’s film is never satisfied with “both.” The film multiplies its objects of desire and in its closing moments overtly demands more than just two possibilities. Belle and Bête fly above the earth to a new utopian space which is neither the bankrupt kingdom of France, nor the hidden chateau of the Beast. Rather they depart for a third kingdom — the faraway domain of the liberated future.
Beauty and the Beast reminds us that many different sexualities are possible, that magic is necessary, that the beautiful lives next to and with the monstrous, and that wickedness wears a glamorous face. Like those Nazis in their leather coats. Like the Radical Right in their smug slick commercialized Christianity suits. We know how slick evil is. How dispersed, generous, and genuinely mysterious both goodness and bravery are.
We know that sometimes we have to live in the dark. But Cocteau’s film expresses what we have always known in our hearts:
We want the option. We want the option to live outside and in public. To perform all the things we are and are not yet. Without fear. With total joy. All sorts of bodies. All the time.
(To learn more about Parisian artists under the Occupation, check out And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris, Alan Riding, Knopf, 2010)
Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Garbo Laughs.