The prologue, set in stained glass, presents an important detail that’s easy to overlook. The prince was young, a teenager. The enchanted rose, unforgettably floating inside its glass case, was to bloom “until his twenty-first year.” It’s unclear just how many years he spent under the spell, but two or three would be enough. So he was perhaps eighteen on that fateful winter’s night when the enchantress saw right through him, “that there was no love in his heart.” We are not permitted to question her judgment, but it is a chilling revelation. In the film’s first statement on inner versus outer beauty, his outside was made to match his inside.
Maybe it was more than a few years — however long it would take for the prince’s existence to be completely forgotten (no one in the village knew about the Beast). Then again, maybe he was prince over no one, merely living in a castle in the woods with his great riches. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that, even though he was given clear instructions for breaking the spell, he closed himself off from the possibility by becoming a hermit. We can understand this decision. The demand that he cure himself by falling in love with a woman feels like a cruel joke. He wasn’t just ugly; he was a huge, animalistic demon. Forget falling in love with him: who could treat him as a person?
But his response took on the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy. He shut himself away so completely that even a lost old man seeking shelter felt like a dangerous intruder. And when — miracle of miracles — a young woman came looking for that old man, the Beast tried to break her, or at least bend her to his will. She just had to say she loved him, right? If not her, who else? The early, volatile scenes are brimming with the anxiety of time running short. They also show how much he retained the nature of a spoiled brat. What the enchantress wanted from him is actually quite simple: that he would gain the humility to accept help and to treat his servants like friends instead of tools. The medicine was counterintuitive, but it worked.
Until it did, though — until the second woman entered the young man’s life and chose to complete the work of the first — the life of the Beast was one of increasing despair. Much of this is conveyed, not with words, but with a place: the west wing of the castle. This is where the Beast went when he needed to lose his mind a little. Whenever the burden felt too heavy — when it seemed like he would never be cleansed, never feel normal, again — he could throw some furniture, claw some walls, smash a mirror. It’s easy to imagine the rose becoming a toxic sight for him. This was the simple gift he could have accepted to spare himself all this trouble, and later it became symbolic of all the beauty that seemed out of reach. The west wing was a place to contain all his shame and guilt. It can even be thought of as the embodiment of his heart. And someone wanted to see it.
The opening song lays out her dissatisfactions nicely, casting her village as a place of boring routine and petty problems. There was no one for her to talk to because no one shared her love of reading adventure stories, let alone living in one. Having reached marrying age, her only escape from the same bourgeois, “provincial” fate as everyone else was her father the inventor, whose ambition she constantly encouraged. If he could become famous and successful, perhaps they could leave. Otherwise, the only person in town interested in her was a bellicose misogynist. Belle easily saw right through him: handsome on the outside (or, rather, a caricature of handsomeness), arrogant on the inside — and even more vocally opposed to Belle’s reading than the rest of the village.
Belle’s father set things in motion. Sadly, he was a crackpot, got lost on the way to a fair, and found himself in a strange castle. The hideous monster who lived there locked him away in a tiny cell where he would soon freeze to death. Up to this point, Belle had shown herself to be a powerful and intelligent woman, but the scene in the dungeon is indispensable. She couldn’t free her father by force, and the only thing she had to bargain with was herself. Her decision to replace her father as the monster’s prisoner was an act of such foolish grace. When we hear her father plead, “I’m old! I’ve lived my life!” the euthanasic impulse within us all is stirred. But she had made her choice, and it’s unmistakable who holds the real power in this scene. Belle is given an agency that is extremely rare among the “Disney princesses.” The monster could hardly help noticing the strength of her love.
She might not have known it yet, but the adventure and excitement she sought were now hers. The exchange with her father was successful; he was sent back to the village. Then the monster started acting strangely, giving her a much nicer room and calling the castle her “home” instead of a prison. It was a kind of masked coercion, trying to make her happy there when she had no choice but to stay. Whatever it was, it was thoroughly unappealing. She recoiled at the thought of spending the rest of her life alone with this creature. But then she discovered they weren’t alone. In fact, almost every object in the castle was alive (except her bed, apparently, for which I know I’d be deeply grateful — “Comfy?” I imagine it whispering). There was magic afoot, and a mystery to be solved.
After a long struggle, Belle and the Beast didn’t so much “fall in love” as they actively pursued it and created it within each other. They each fulfilled a need in the other person. For him, obviously, she broke the spell, restoring his humanity through and through. For her, he became a friend, which she desired much more than a romantic partner. It’s crucial that she never learned the whole truth about the spell before it was broken. She loved him for who he was, not just because loving him would turn him back into a human. Just as Solomon only wanted wisdom and got riches too, Belle only wanted the Beast and got a prince too.
When it came to the end; when, after trying so hard to make her love him, he let her go to save her father a second time; when she finally trusted him enough to ask his permission to leave instead of simply fleeing; when the villagers learned of his existence and attacked out of fear; when all hope seemed finally lost and he was prepared to die rather than face a lifetime as a monster, she came back for him. The inner beauty, the inner goodness of these two characters was shining through in multiple ways, until it literally shone through one of them. It all came down to one last whispered declaration. There is supreme hope in the fact that three simple words saved a life, broke a spell, and helped make Beauty and the Beast the great Disney romance.
[It’s been a whole year since I did a “Double Feature” post, and it occurs to me that pairing this movie with Cocteau’s La belle et la bête would be perfect. I haven’t had time to see the latter film again recently, but that post may be coming soon. That would also give me an opportunity to look at some of the many other versions of this tale.]