In his preamble to Beauty and the Beast, director Jean Cocteau implores his audience to follow him into the magical realm of his film by approaching it as a child. “Children believe what we tell them,” he says. “They have complete faith in us.” And so with the magic of film, Cocteau returns us to a childlike state, where we can “believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim.” I will never forget the scene where Belle’s father [Marcel Andre] first enters the beast’s castle. As he walks warily down the gloomy hallway, candelabra gripped by disembodied arms swing out from the walls and light up in a puff of smoke. As he reaches the end of the hallway, one of the arms leaves the candelabrum floating to point Belle’s father in the right direction. Throughout the film, practical special effects are used masterfully to evoke a sense of magic befitting a fairy tale. The film succeeds at getting even the most jaded adults to believe in magic for an hour and a half. Rarely has a film taken me away from reality like Beauty and the Beast. Rarely have I believed in magic. Rarely have I left a film feeling so much like a child.
But why? The smoking claws. The living faces hewn in stone. The gloves that teleport Belle [Josette Day] across the world. These details add a sense of magic to the film, but they only partially explain the magical feeling that the film created in me. They are only a gateway into a deeper magical framework that undergirds the film. Just as Jean Cocteau intones the magic phrases “Open Sesame” and “Once upon a time” to bring us into the world of fairy tales, the film, with its magical details, fosters a childlike belief in a comforting world that makes more sense than reality.
Adult life can be spiritually exhausting. Many of us maintain the illusion that we’re in control, and that we understand the way the world works. The truth is that all of us have that despairing moment of lucidity where we see the world for what it really is: chaos. Every day, on the news, we see the death and suffering of innocent people on a scale that’s impossible to comprehend. Closer to home we see terrible things happen to wonderful people. We see awful people getting away with murder. It’s hard to believe that the world has any order when you’re faced with that every day. Of course, this chaos has been a feature of humanity for at least as long as the written word has existed. In the Christian world, this has resulted in theodicy, where thinkers try to understand why a good and all powerful God would allow evil to exist. Eastern religions sometimes focus on the concept of Karma, in which one’s present actions can influence future fortune. More personally, I know that, even as I tell myself there’s no cosmic justice, I hope for a reward after every good deed. I think we all do at some level.
In this sense, a film like Beauty and the Beast, just like most successful modern fairy tales, is the perfect escape from a world that perpetually feels like it’s careening out of control. It helps us believe in a world where the arbitrary nature of the world is counteracted by a magical force that sets things right. The whole film acts as a lullaby telling viewers not to worry, because the world will behave just as you expect it to. When the film begins, we see Belle’s father arbitrarily sentenced to death by the Beast for picking a rose. “Ridiculous!” you might say. And yet, how different is that from the arbitrary awfulness of the real world? Who deserves to get run over by a drunk driver? Who deserves to get laid off in a recession? This random act of cruelty is more reflective of the real world than I’d care to admit. What’s clearly not reflective of the real world is how the story resolves. By the end of the film, the dutiful daughter Belle saves her father and the Beast through the power of love. Avenant, Belle’s other suitor, is turned into a beast in return for his callous and self-serving behavior. To top it all off Belle, who lived as a servant to her two sisters will now live as a queen who is waited on by her two sisters.
If only the world worked this way! Unfairness would not be a persistent feature of the world but just a mild inconvenience that would correct itself in short order. No good deed would go unrewarded. No bad deed would go unpunished. By the time we reach adolescence, we know that the world doesn’t work this way. And yet many of us yearn for childhood, when, for the fortunate among us, the umbrella of parents and teachers preserves that fragile illusion of a sensible universe by meting out justice where its due. We crave that feeling of security, when we knew that no matter what went wrong, someone would be there to pick us up off the ground and tell us “it’s going to be okay.” I know I’m never going to get that back. A movie like Beauty and the Beast is the next best thing. The film entrances us with its magical mirrors and fantasy castles so that we don’t detect the true sleight of hand taking place: it makes viewers forget for an hour and a half that ultimately there’s no one in the world that can always keep us safe. For that hour and a half, viewers become children again, confident that the world is fair. For an hour and a half, viewers can feel like a three-year-old in their mothers’ arms.