“When you dream about my likeness, you create it. The more ardently you dream, the sooner you will see me. And I will resemble your dream.”

– The Beast to Beauty, Panna a netvor (Beauty and the Beast)

Of all the classic fairy tales, “Beauty and the Beast” is the one most perennially popular with film-makers and their audience. Its legacy ranges from Jean Cocteau’s luminous La Belle et la Bête (1946) – perhaps the only film where folk tradition and avant-garde aesthetics blend into a seamless whole – to its dizzying rococo retelling of the same name by Christophe Gans (2014). It incorporates the Disney cartoon behemoth turned Broadway musical turned live-action remake (Gary Trousdale& Kirk Wise, 1991; Bill Condon, 2017). It makes room for such oddball modern-dress variants as Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (Steven Shainberg, 2006). And that is before we start counting the multiple versions of King Kong, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera – all of which tell the essentially same story in varying styles and forms.

So why do Beauty and her Beast make such potent and popular screen fodder? The answer is not hard to find. Like the cinema itself, “Beauty and the Beast” is a fabric of illusions, a game of outward physical appearances and the ways in which they correspond (or do not correspond) to the truths of the human soul. Like any actor in any film, the Beast woos us by convincing us he is (and is not) the thing that he appears to be. Like any star on any screen, Beauty journeys from realms of brightest light to deepest darkness – but preserves (and never loses touch with) the essence of who she is. While its origins stretch back at least as far as the second century AD and Apuleius’s tale of Cupid and Psyche, the core of the story seems ‘cinematic’ in ways that other folk tales do not. Just as much as any film, “Beauty and the Beast” invites us to surrender completely to an overpowering visual sensation. Yet it obliges us, at the same time, to constantly question the truth of what we see.

The 1978 adaptation by the Czechoslovak film-maker Juraj Herz is both a vital addition to – and a radical departure from – the tradition of fairy tales on film. Its title, Panna a netvor, has been translated with equal validity as The Beauty and the Beast or The Virgin and the Monster. As this alternate title implies, the dimension of horror (not to mention outright revulsion) is far stronger in this version than in any of its more mainstream rivals. The Graeco-Roman myth of Cupid and Psyche confronts its heroine with the very real fear that “the husband who comes secretly gliding into your bed at night is an enormous snake, with widely gaping jaws, a body that could coil around you a dozen times and a neck swollen with deadly poison.”1 Not one of the better-known film versions conveys anything like this degree of terror. In the two films of La Belle et la Bête, both Jean Marais and Vincent Cassel remain dashing and attractive under their furry leonine make-up. In the Disney versions, Belle faces the unspeakable horror of marriage to a stuffed cuddly toy.

Herz’s monster in Panna a netvor is, quite literally, monstrous – a creature neither bird nor serpent nor mammal, but combining the most viscerally off-putting traits of all three. We cannot conceive that Julia, our heroine, would ever find him attractive – however offbeat or perverse her tastes might be. As Jack Zipes describes him:

In each and every shot of the Beast, Herz stresses the gruesome features of the monstrous protagonist – his beak, sharp talons, dark wings, ferocious glare, snarling voice. He is torn by an evil inner voice that urges him to kill Julia or to kill himself. 2

The Beast’s palace is a drab and derelict charnel-house, littered with dead leaves and broken statues, surrounded by a quagmire of steaming and bubbling mud which – even though Herz would never stoop to Smell-O-Vision – we feel sure must reek of noxious sulphur and rancid flesh. Every time the Beast peeks out at Julia from the shadows, we hear frantic tremolos on an organ. Quite unlike Cocteau or Gans or the Disney folks, Herz is determined to wring the very last shudder out of his audience. Only the strongest of stomachs would say he does not succeed.

If the film falls short at all, it does so not in its visions of darkness and horror but in its intervals of beauty and light. This is a problem inherited from Herz’s better-known (and, frankly, better) early films. Writing about Morgiana (1972) – his dazzling tale of good and evil twin sisters, which resembles Aubrey Beardsley on a sumptuous Technicolor acid-trip – the critic Peter Hames points out: “Inevitably, it is the evil sister whose story is interesting, while the beautiful Klára often appears vacuous and stupid.”3 Similarly, in Panna a netvor, the heroine’s dream visions of the Beast in his original princely form are built on the sort of saccharine romantic clichés that would make Barbara Cartland blush. On a screen thick with Vaseline, an interminable succession of white doors swings open one by one. The handsome prince carries his swooning bride (in soft focus) towards us, as asilvery piano tinkles on the soundtrack. The scene lasts barely three minutes but seems (as we are watching it) to take up at least half the film. As Jack Zipes observes, “The horror of the film is in its portrayal of anticipated happiness.”4

Panna a netvor has the capacity to horrify in the best and the worst of ways. Yet like any true fairy tale, it is unlikely ever to leave its audience bored or indifferent. Our most darkly seductive fantasies are the ones we never admit to – and Juraj Herz is a wizard at getting them right. What about the ‘Happily Ever After’ bits? We are more than able to fill those in for ourselves.

 

Panna a netvor/Beauty and the Beast/The Virgin and the Monster (1978 Czechoslovakia 88 mins)

Prod. Co: Ustřední půjčovna filmů v Praze Prod: Karel Kochman Dir: Juraj Herz Scr: František Hrubin, Ota Hofman, Juraj Herz Phot: Jiří Machaine Mus: Petr Hapka Ed: Jaromír Janáček Art Dir: Josef Vyletál, Vladimír Labský

Cast: Zdena Studenková, Vlastimil Harapeč, VáclavVoska, Jana Brechjová, Zuxana Kocŭriková

 

Endnotes

  1. Apuleius,“Cupid and Psyche” in The Penguin Book of Western Fairy Tales (Jack Zipes, ed.) Penguin Books, London, 1993, p. 11.
  2. Jack Zipes, The Enchanted Screen – The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films, Routledge, New York & London, 2011, p. 238.
  3. Peter Hames, The Czechoslovak New Wave, Second Edition, Wallflower Press, London& New York, 2005, p. 231.
  4. Zipes, p. 238.

About The Author

David Melville teaches Film Studies and Literature for the University of Edinburgh Centre for Open Learning. He has a special interest in melodrama, fantasy fiction and the aesthetics of dreams.