A couple of weeks ago, ms_siobhan
and I spent a very enjoyable evening at the Howard Assembly Rooms in the Grand Theatre building, Leeds. The first half of the evening consisted of a lecture by Christopher Frayling, roaming around the various topics of a book he has recently published
, which takes his friendship with the author, Angela Carter, as a spring-board for a miscellany of broadly Gothic topics. I must admit to not having a terribly deep knowledge of Angela Carter's work before we went. I have heard a radio adaptation of her short story, 'The Lady of the House of Love', which I thought was amazing; the film version of The Company of Wolves
has been waiting patiently on my Lovefilm list for several years now; and that's about all I got. I definitely came away wanting to get to know her work better, though.
Frayling spoke mainly about their friendship and shared interest in the strange, the fantastic and the Gothic while they were both living in Bath in the 1970s. This was a world in which he had tried to get the local council to extend its series of plaques commemorating the visits of Charles Dickens, William Wordsworth and Jane Austen to include Mary Shelley, who spent six months living there in late 1816 while working on Frankenstein
, only to receive a snobbish and bureaucratic reply indicating that the author of such a sensationalist novel was hardly worthy of the honour. Yet there, in a pokey little house which she could barely afford to heat, lived Angela Carter, busily redefining both feminism and the Gothic on her own terms. She and Frayling geeked out together over vampire books, screenings of classic films (e.g. Nosferatu
(1922)), the ballet and much more, while she kept notebooks of their conversations and used snippets of them years later in her work.
In between the bits on Carter herself, Frayling scattered snippets of his thoughts and experiences on related topics, showing us for example pictures of his visit to Romania in the mid-1970s (most of which looked more or less identical to my own
from two years ago
) or talking about the film we were about to see: its 18th-century origins, Cocteau's particular take, and how it had directly inspired much of Disney's animated version (e.g. the anthropmorphic household objects). He concluded with some thoughts on how the status of Gothic literature (and, implicitly, film) as a subject of study has changed since his days in Bath with Angela Carter, from the radical and innovative to the new mainstream.
Then, after a short break, it was on to the film itself. It is visually beautiful in a way I can't really do justice to simply by describing it. To 21st-century eyes used to watching a lot of fantastical screen drama, it may only appear averagely creative and opulent, but I'm quite sure it must have seemed incredible in a France only just emerging from the end of a devastating war, and it remains entrancing and engrossing today. The story itself is told fairly straightforwardly, but actually it was the first time I've really sat through a full telling of it in any form, and I spent quite a lot of the time, especially during the early stages of Belle's time in the palace, thinking "Gosh, this is basically Cupid and Psyche, isn't it?" You know - one of three daughters ends up living in a magical palace far removed from normal humanity with a husband who has strange powers, only appears at night and begs his wife not to look at him directly. Indeed, it turns out from the Wikipedia page on the original fairy tale
that I was not the only person to have noticed that.
That page doesn't make any mention of Diana in the original fairy tale, however (although I wouldn't take that as proof that she isn't in it!), whereas she is an important element in Cocteau's film. His Beast explains to Belle that Diana's Pavilion in his palace grounds contains the true source of his riches, and entrusts her with a golden key to it which she conscientiously does not use. Her greedy human sort-of-boyfriend, though, has different moral standards, and breaks into it to try to steal the Beast's riches, only to be shot by Diana and transformed into a beast himself. So this looks to me like Cocteau going back past the fairy tale to draw on its Classical antecedents - not straightforwardly or directly, since it is Venus as Cupid's mother who is the source of his power, but rather by choosing an appropriate equivalent figure for the rather different character of the Beast, whose animalistic nature as a hunter is indeed Diana's domain. Besides, Diana had form for turning people into beasts as punishment: ask Actaeon
There are fairly obvious metaphors going on here about sexual restraint as well, given that Diana-the-huntress is famously virginal. Cocteau makes a big point of the Beast respecting Belle's personal agency and autonomy, for all that she is his prisoner - itself a role she has chosen voluntarily to pay off her father's unwitting crime of cutting a rose for her. He tells her that he will ask her each evening to be his wife, but accepts her repeated refusals with grace and humility, treating her with nothing but kindness and devotion. When the Beast gives her the key to the temple of Diana, asks her not to use it, and she respects that wish, she too is choosing not to violate this potent symbol of his chastity. This is also a shift in their relationship, as he grants her a form of power over him, and she repays his behaviour by respecting him in return. Set alongside all this, though, her left-behind boyfriend, Avenant, stands as a contrasting example, quite happy to break into the virgin goddess' temple and plunder its treasures, and reaping the punishment for doing so.
I have no idea how this sits along the typical themes and concerns of Cocteau's work, because I just don't know enough about him, but anyway, that is how this one seemed to me. I'm certainly up for a bit more of his stuff, should the occasion arise.Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.