By Jeffrey Overstreet
NOTE: The following contains references that might be considered spoilers about the conclusion of the film Penelope.
I can't stop thinking about Christina Ricci's nose.
Let me explain. On a date last week, Anne and I watched a tricky little fairy tale called Penelope. The film made only a cameo appearance in theaters, then vanished almost unnoticed. A shame, really. I found Penelope to be a whimsical flick with a refreshing lack of snarkiness.
In Mark Palansky's movie, there's one arresting twist: the young woman's the beast. Poor Penelope (the beguiling Christina Ricci) is cursed with a stupendous snout right out of Miss Piggy's wardrobe. Her parents are horrified. Fearing humiliation, they imprison Penelope into adulthood, while they search for a suitor who will serve up Cupid's cure for all curses: True love.
Beauty, thus, is a young man. Penelope's potential Prince Charming is played by James “Mr. Tumnus” McAvoy, who—Anne assures me—scores handsomely on the “boy beauty” charts. If he can give up compulsive gambling and get a life, he might find the courage to love Penelope for who she is. How does it all end up? You get one guess.
But Penelope short-circuits her own fairy tale by seeming only mildly annoyed by her appearance. In fact, after the shock wears off, she's almost attractive in spite of that preposterous proboscis. Her real curse is a hysterical, overbearing mother (Catherine O'Hara).
Seeing Penelope so persecuted, I couldn't help but get defensive about those outstanding nostrils. (And why not? I was teased about my own appearance during my teens.) I wanted her to keep the nose, like C.D. Bales did in Roxanne.
That's my problem with “Beauty and the Beast” stories: If the monster is rescued from affliction, I'll miss the affliction. I'll want the beast back every time. Penelope's “Happily Ever After” is tainted by a lingering nostalgia for her deformity.
It's a familiar disappointment.
Watching Disney's musical Beauty and the Beast, I felt ripped-off when when a gleaming Fabio replaced that magnificent man-imal. Writing about Jean Cocteau's masterpiece La Belle et La Bete, Roger Ebert tells of the 1946 premiere, when Cocteau sat holding hands with Marlene Dietrich. During the climactic transformation, Dietrich cried out, “Where is my beautiful beast?”
What's a screenwriter, like Penelope's Leslie Caveny, to do? Should she insist that the nose is a curse to be broken, and bless Penelope with an adorable button? Or switch fairy-tales and make this an “Ugly Duckling” story instead, parroting that ubiquitous pop lesson “Love Thyself No Matter What”?
If we insist that Penelope lose the snout, we're admitting that the nose is an aberration—an error that needs correction. But in today's culture of “tolerance,” who has any authority to name something an error? What does “wrong” mean anymore?
And yet, something inside us knows—the nose must go. Penelope wants to celebrate its curse and break it too. We're told she must love herself as she is, and our plucky heroine even wears something like swan feathers during her self-loving epiphany. Nevertheless, when Christina Ricci's own schnoz appears, I miss the piglet.
Is something wrong with me? Shouldn't I feel joy at the erasure of the snout?
No, I suspect that this recurring problem is a flaw in the art, not the audience.
I could speculate about the sexual interpretation of the story: We prefer the beast because he represents the wild, frightening mystery of sex, and the thrill may indeed be gone when he (or she) becomes something familiar, safe, and eligible for marriage. But Palansky's version focuses more on issues of insecurity and self-confidence than of overcoming the fear of sex. Perhaps it's best to leave that study for a more relevant adaptation.
Better to focus here on the fact that entertainers like to keep butts in seats. And if their beasts actually scare and disgust the audience, viewers might head for the exits. We're stuck, then, with tolerable—even likable—beasts. Indeed, many big screen beasts seem more human than their bland human co-stars. They've a certain mystery, a fearsome magnificence, a compelling conflict in their countenance.
It's tough to find storytellers brave enough to make the beast properly repulsive. David Lynch's films powerfully explore the dilemma of our monstrous fallen state. Our revulsion at the sight of The Elephant Man's John Merrick sets us up for the heartbreak of knowing his beautiful spirit. David Cronenberg, another expert in monstrosity, says horror movies are “films of confrontation. Films that make you confront aspects of your own life that are difficult to face.” If we are to take the beast seriously as a representation of our own curse, we should be distraught at the sight of him. Otherwise, how will we yearn for his deliverance?
But there's another problem—an unresolvable conundrum for visual artists. We've never witnessed human perfection or experienced a glorified body. How is an artist to manifest the liberated person? Our ideas of perfect are so imperfect.
In his poem named for Cocteau's film, Mark Doty puzzles on the problem. Noting that nobody remembers the “bland and pretty” hero who appears at the end, he says we do remember
the heady onrush
of the transformation, the will
that eventually unfurls the body
beneath the fur. The moments,
disruptive and lush, before the breaking through....
We relate to being beastly, and to leaning in toward grace. But while the moment of the beast's transformation is riveting, the result is not. And—I'd venture to add—cannot be. Not yet.
Penelope suggests that peace comes through character, not cosmetic surgery. In this, it's smarter than Twilight, which reverses the fairy tale by making its reckless, insecure heroine so desperate that she wants to debase herself and take on the affliction of her morose but sexy beast. Nevertheless, it proves Evelyn Waugh's observation: “The human mind is inspired enough when it comes to inventing horrors; it is when it tries to invent a Heaven that it shows itself cloddish.”
Still, even mediocre versions of this fairy tale resonate, both for the truth of the beast, and for the truth of C.S. Lewis's insight: “We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”