It’s Movie Review Monday (on a Tuesday, but still, I like the alliteration)
I don’t need to sum up the plot of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. We all know it. We’ve all seen it. It’s a masterpiece. And it has such a happy ending. The Beast and all his servants change back into humans and Belle presumably gets married, becomes a Princess, and escapes the dreary monotony of her rural French village. Just in time for all of them to be guillotined by the Committee of Public Safety.
Now I do not claim to know when Beauty and the Beast is set. However, the Disney version is mostly based on a version of the story written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1757. However, we see Belle’s father, the inventor Maurice, working with a steam-driven invention, which would not have been practical until the mid 1760s. So I feel fully comfortable saying that Disney’s Beauty and the Beast takes place some time between the late 1760s and the late 1770s. Also, in case you hadn’t noticed, it also takes place in France.
So, to recap: The ex-Beast and Belle are now a Prince and Princess in France, during the reign of King Louis XVI (r. 1774-1792). How do you think that is going to end up?
Honestly, the entire movie is constantly foreshadowing the French Revolution. How does it begin? With a vapid and spoiled French nobleman refusing to show charity to an old woman. Could this perhaps be symbolic of the fact that French noblemen were completely exempt from paying taxes? The movie then cuts to Belle and her father Maurice, who are both clearly well educated, literate, and embody middle class values. However, they are currently stuck in a poor village, filled with provincial rubes. This village clearly represents the French Third Estate.
A note on the French system of Estates: The Kingdom of France was divided into three estates. 1st Estate=Clergy, 2nd Estate=Nobility, 3rd Estate=Everybody Else (Belle, Maurice, Gaston, LeFou, all of the townspeople from the opening song). These three bodies could occasionally meet collectively as The Estates-General, which represented the interests of each estate to the King. However, each estate only got one vote. The fact that the 3rd Estate made up 97% of the French population didn’t matter at all. Their vote counted the same as the 1st Estate’s (1%) and the 2nd Estate’s (2%).
The other problem with the Third Estate was the fact that it was, by it’s very nature ridiculously diverse. It included both the rich merchant and the poor farmer. So at the beginning of Beauty and the Beast, the well-educated and worldly Belle is trapped in a small village with a bunch of French peasants. Clearly, Belle is representative of the small French middle-class, wanting political recognition as distinct from the poor masses, and to gain more influence within the French society.
The story then continues with Belle going to rescue her father from the Beast, where she is imprisoned. The Beast serves as a representation of the decadence of the aristocracy. Just look at the size of his castle, and how many pieces of magical silverware he has! The musical number “Be Our Guest” is a gigantic showcase for how over the top and disconnected the world of the French aristocracy was from the real world.
At first, the Beast is only willing to feed Belle on his terms. When she refused to dine with him, she is locked in her room. This is a subversion of the French delegates to the Estates General being locked out (haha, subversion) out of their meeting room when they refused to obey the King’s wishes. However, Belle, with her staunch middle class values, such as moderation, patience, and education, Belle gradually wins over the Beast and reforms him, turning him from a decadent aristocrat into a model of middle-class respectability. This could be seen as France’s experiment with a constitutional monarchy during the moderate phase of the French Revolution in 1790.
Although Belle has achieved her desire for an worldly adventure, the French peasants are having none of this. Belle is seen as a traitor to the Third Estate (such as when Gaston accuses her of trying to protect the Beast rather than help kill it). She has sided with the aristocrats, and as a result of the continued poverty of the French peasants, they form an angry mob that proceeds to march on the Bastille…I mean Versailles…I mean the Beast’s castle.
“Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of Angry Mobs?”
However, the angry mob is defeated by the magical items within the castle, which further proves my point that no social revolution to stand up to magic.
Anyway, Gaston is ultimately defeated not by the Beast, but by his own hand. He overreaches in his attempts to kill the Beast, and he falls to his death of a cliff (as is tradition). So when both Gaston (the French Peasant) and the Beast (the French Aristocracy) are falling, Belle (the French Middle Class) chooses to save the Beast. This could be seen as the classic Thermidorian Reaction.
Vocab Corner: The Thermidorian Reaction was a revolt by moderate French republicans (supporters of the French Republic) against the more radical Jacobins that had up to that point been the drivers of the French Revolution). This represented a major turning point, as ended the radical revolution a brought to power much more conservative (suspicious of change) politicians, like Napoleon Bonaparte. The term is used nowadays to describe the point where the revolutionaries become the new “Establishment” (see: most third-world countries).
So in the end, it is Belle and the ex-Beast who live happily ever after, while Gaston falls to his death. This ultimately is symbolic of the formation of the French July Monarchy in 1830, which represented a centrist alliance of the French Aristocracy (whose authority had been undermined by the Revolution) and the French Middle Class (who had finally be enfranchised and empowered by the Revolution). At this point, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Beauty and the Beast is clearly a film that endorses the Orleanist line of succession.
Of course this is just one interpretation. It is also very likely that Beauty and the Beast is simply a fairy tale with lessons about finding beauty within and learning to trust others. But you know you secretly want it to be about the French Revolution, right?