From The Opening of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête)
Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us.
They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict.
They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home.
They believe a thousand other simple things.
I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s “Open Sesame”:
Once upon a time…
Once upon a time, which is a wonderful way to begin any good story….
There was a merchant — a widower, who lived in a lovely little English village of which you see so few these days and they were rather rare once upon a time. He was a kind man, well thought of by his neighbors, but quite astute in business which was why he had been very successful throughout his life. He had traveled the world and seen many things, but one of his greatest prizes was the thing he had once loved most of all: his beloved wife, who had given him four children and had died when the youngest was yet a child. The merchant missed her terribly and to satisfy her memory and what they had meant to one another, he decided to give his offspring and heirs the best of everything, an action which gave him mixed results in the end as he watched them become adults.
His oldest child was a daughter they had named Julia. She had been declared one of the great beauties of the kingdom, and it was a fact she wished all to realize, which was not difficult. When she reached her seventeenth year, there were so many suitors at her door, she found it impossible to choose, and therefore — to her parents’ regret — found herself courted by so many that the young woman became confused, the object of numerous engagements and broken engagements….And yet the gentlemen, both high born and lowly born, continued to give her praise, even to writing prose and poetry in her honor until she realized how much power she could wield in simply her looks. She eventually chose upon three who adored and worshiped her as she felt befit her – three not at once of course, but three in due time, one following another, and although they were men of great status, upon marriage to her they faded into the background until some teased they were more her shadow than her spouse.
The second child had been yet another daughter, and she was christened Gwyneth. As with her sister, Julia, she was also declared one of the great beauties of the kingdom, a fact she, as well, wished all to realize — which was not difficult. A year younger than Julia, she found herself with so many suitors at her own door that it was also impossible for her to choose and therefore — to her parents’ regret — found herself courted by so many that the young woman became confused, the object of numerous engagements and broken engagements….And yet the gentlemen, both high born and lowly born, continued to give her praise, even to writing prose and poetry in her honor until she realized how much power she could wield in simply her looks.
The third was born two years after Gwyneth — the long awaited son, named for his father, Benjamin, but he was nothing like his namesake or his mother, until there came a time when his parents believed him a changeling. He had been sent to the finest university in the land, accompanied by his dear friend, Matthew, Lord Damon, and while there, the pair had achieved great success by creating a play of such renown, they were feted and praised and awarded as much for their work as Benjamin’s sisters were honored for their beauty. The kingdom bowed at their feet and they created yet a second play, then a third, and while the success of the first was not attained, they were still considered near geniuses….
Until the day Matthew decided to strike out on his own and see whether his talents might take him on the stage and well as behind the scenes. To his amazement, he found that he possessed numerous talents…..Unlike his friend Benjamin, who had also decided to try his hand at the stage, only to hear comments that his acting was wooden and lifeless and nothing like Matthew (incredible, the people said, that they had considered both of them so brilliant and perhaps it was only true in one case). But Benjamin did not give up. He continued to appear in one play after another, some written by him, some written by others, and yet the opinions varied as his life went on. He was still considered by many as one of the most handsome men in the kingdom, and women threw themselves at him, a fact he took advantage of when it pleased him. He was fond of gambling, was quite good at it most of the time — unlike his acting — and when his name was mentioned, it was usually prefaced by the words “gambler” and “handsome” and “gift of God,” so much so that he considered placing acting aside. But he had not yet married….he had not presented his family with heirs….He lived as if he would live forever, much to the chagrin of his father — and of his mother when she died.
The last child was also the third daughter, and while she had been named Isabelle, which meant “God is my oath,” she was called Belle by her parents — Belle, for beautiful. For she was a lovely girl but as the youngest, she found that she followed in the shadows of her older, better known and more popular siblings, but this was for the best in the end. Since the men were so enamored of her sisters, none paid court to her, which enabled her to find love in other things: in books, in music, in cooking and gardening, both of herbs and flowers, in history and the world outside their town, and in that aspect, she was a good deal like her mother….
The mother who died when Belle was twelve. That was seven years before…..
In that time the idyllic life Belle had known vanished forever. The elder Benjamin spent long weeks from home, tending to his ever expanding businesses, and although he greatly missed the company of his youngest daughter, he could not bare the memory of all the happy times he and his wife had shared in the home he had built for her. Best to stay away….
And when he did, his remaining children took advantage of the situation. They freely spent their monthly allowances as if the morrow would never come, and when that funding had run temporarily dry, dipped into whatever else was available. The estate was filled with riotous company and often raucous parties….Belle was at none of them. She had attempted to hide from her siblings and hope they would forget her existence, but they did not, and she found — that each time their father was away — she was treated no better than the servants her sisters and brother abused. She acted as Julia and Gwyneth’s lady-in-waiting and maid; personally cooked for them (when they would eat, for they feared ruining the svelte figures they were greatly known for), washed for them, performed their more menial tasks. Her brother would invite her to the intimate dinners he gave for his closest of friends — in hopes of bewitching the men so much that they would lose track when they gambled against him. Only when her father made one of his rare appearances did she find some respite, and — despite cursing herself for keeping secret out of some loyalty to her family — she simply savored what she could until he disappeared again.
Which brings us to the here and now.