Saturday, March 14, 2015

Kindness & Courage: Cinderella (2015)

It's ghastly.
I can't stand feminists. I can't stand how all they do is nit-pick over things they cannot even begin to understand. "Cinderella" is just a man's construct of his perfect, beautiful and brainless woman, they say; believing in only the material world, I would like to point out, causes significant problems for them, especially when it comes to art. Cinderella isn't about women, it's about the soul, which is often portrayed in the feminine, and Cinderella is about the choices we have in life, and whether we will turn evil, like the step-mother, or choose good, like Cinderella. Now, let us move along and study the wonderful film that Mr. Branagh and company have provided for us and what messages we are meant to take from it (I can't even begin to cover everything, so these are just some of the highlights).
What does the glass slipper symbolize? We know feet symbolize the will (and shoes, then, reveal to us what kind of will, or what problems with the will, the character is having) and glass symbolizes personal reflection and inner-meditation. Butterflies, culturally speaking, usually convey metamorphosis, as the caterpillar turns from an ugly bug into the winged creature of beauty and grace.  We also know, from our reading of the original, 1950 Disney animated version, that Cinderella has been through spiritual battles and much warfare, and the coach, the gown, the slippers, are a "down payment" for her "spoils of war" that she has accumulated for exercising virtue rather than indulging her desire for revenge and bickering, like her step-sisters. The glass slipper, then, symbolizes that Cinderella has done the will of God, rather than her own human will, she has reflected and meditated upon her actions, and the actions of others, and has worn "kindness and courage" as her will rather than self-promotion and greed. Just before Ella gets into the coach, the fairy godmother sees Ella's old black slippers, and asks, don't you have anything better? To which Ella replies, no one is going to see them. Ella is wrong, however, and it's not because she loses a slipper while swinging and Kit puts the shoe back on her, rather, everyone sees our will, everyone sees what determines who we are and what guides us in life. The black slippers, however, are the color of death, and a sign that Cinderella has "put to death" her own will, and--through her free will--given life to the will of God (kindness and courage). The facets of the glass slipper convey the multi-dimensionality of Cinderella's character, even though some people may argue that she isn't multi-dimensional at all. Just because a person has one response to every situation, whether that be kindness, in Ella's case, or sarcasm and superiority as in the case of Lady Tremaine,   doesn't mean that they haven't evolved past the shallow depths, rather, either good has been allowed to wholly transform them, or evil has taken root and utterly destroyed them. Again, with the case of Ella, she always uses her will to choose the higher path in life, and the glass slippers are a visualization of how Ella has grown over the years.
There are numerous places where we can begin this analysis, but let's start with the place where Branagh most defitely breaks with Disney's 1950 animated version: their meeting before the ball. This detail is a brilliant accomplishment of character development, if we only know how to read it. Ella has just been dubbed "Cinderella" by her step-sister because of the ash on her face, and told--in no uncertain terms by Lady Tremaine (the step-mother, Cate Blanchett) that she is a servant girl and will never be more than that. Ella gets on a horse and rides into the forest; why?
Because of what a forest symbolizes.
This was the first image released by the studio for the film, and it's a fitting characterization of Ella. Why? Horses symbolize the Holy Spirit. In depictions of St. George the Dragonslayer, for example, he is always on his horse because the Holy Spirit is the vehicle of God to take us where He wants us to be in life. The Holy Spirit is not just the Comforter and the Paraclete, but also our destiny in life who communicates to us the grand purpose and design God has for our lives. This is an accurate reading because it's in this scene that Ella meets Kit, her future husband. We know that blue, the color of Ella's dress and slippers, symbolizes both sadness and wisdom, because the path to wisdom is the path of sadness, and in the meeting with Kit, Ella expresses both traits. 
You may recall in Snow White and the Huntsman that the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) was the only one who had ever been in the woods and come out alive, and that's precisely where Snow White (Kristen Stewart) went into hide and, like Cinderella, she sees a great stag. In both films, the forest clearly symbolizes our dark, untamed and forbidden emotions that can be self-destructive (the Huntsman had gone in there after his wife's death). In Cinderella, after Ella has been dismissed from the breakfast table, she breaks a dish, and then rides out into the forest on the horse and encounters the stag, then meets Kit. What does the stag mean and symbolize?
The Prince himself.
After they meet at the ball, they talk about this moment of initially meeting and how neither one of them was truthful about who they are: the Prince tells Ella at this meeting, that he is an apprentice who is named Kit, and he works at the palace; Ella doesn't tell him even this much about herself, but she is obviously dressed simply. At the ball, the Prince accuses her of having hid that she was a princess so she wouldn't overwhelm a simple apprentice. In this moment, Kit sees Ella as she is: a simple country girl, with ash on her face and no money, nor family connections; so, you may ask, why doesn't Ella just stay past the stroke of midnight so she can continue to be with Kit and not have to rush off back home and hide her real identity? The answer is, because Ella isn't "finished." Just as Kit hasn't yet become king over the land, so he can execute his royal will, so Ella hasn't become the queen of the land of her own soul; the initial meeting, the dance at the ball, were both "down payments" on what God wanted to do for both of them if they would cooperate with His plan and will. Ella still had lessons and battles in faith, courage and kindness to win before she would be a worthy queen for Kit. When he sees her, at the end, as she is in the scene above, he doesn't see the simple country girl, he sees the woman that has been through abuse, neglect, sorrow and hardship but has won each of her battles and the war. In the image above, the horses each of them rides (again, a symbol of the Holy Spirit) conveys what we need to know about them and their point on their journey: Kit rides a dark horse because, like the stag being hunted, Kit is at the point of death. The Grand Duke has all ready entered into an agreement with the Princess Chelina that Kit will marry her, and without the meeting with Ella, Kit might be likely to go along with it. Ella's gray dappled horse reveals that she is on a pilgrimage (gray is the color of ash, like the ash on her face, and ash was "worn" as a sign of penitence when people would make religious journeys) and advancing in virtue, which she does when she shows more concern for Kit's problems than her own.
It may seem odd that the Prince would be hunting himself, however, that is exactly why it is such a powerful symbol. Remember, Lady Tremaine called Ella herself a creature, and not a human, so part of the power of the scene when Kit and Ella meet is that they are both in exceedingly vulnerable positions emotionally. Ella enters the woods on her horse and sees the stag; she then hears and sees the hunting party and urges the stag to run so it's not caught, and then, following the stag, she catches the eye of Kit who then stops her and they speak. It probably wouldn't do to show the Prince himself scared to death, but this can be conveyed through the stag's fear and running for its life. "It's what's done," he tells Ella, because that is what he has been told about marrying for advantage, rather than love. But there is also another way we can know, by the film, that the stag symbolizes Kit: Lady Tremaine.
On the left is The Swing by Jean-Honore Fragonard, c. 1767, considered to be the masterpiece of the Rococo era and one of the most romantic paintings in the world.  While the painting doesn't appear directly in Cinderella, I would like to posit that it's invoked when Kit takes Ella to his "secret garden" and pushes her on the swing (image on the right) and she loses her shoe, as depicted in the painting above (we have seen the painting directly referenced in a Disney film recently, Frozen). Why does Kit take Ella into his secret garden, and why is there a swing there? A garden is the exact opposite of a forest: a forest is where nature is free to grow as it wills, whereas a garden is designed and maintained by man. Symbolically, the forest, as mentioned above, is the land of our uninhabited nightmare, our emotions and fears we have no control over; gardens, on the other hand, illustrate our mental region over what we do have control over and how we "bear fruit" emotionally, intellectually and socially. Most of us, when we meet someone in whom we are romantically interested, put our "best face forward," and try to make ourselves look as attractive as possible on as many different levels as possible; that's not what happened with Kit and Ella. When they meet, both are in emotionally vulnerable states and that's probably why they are able to so quickly connect: they learn to trust the other person in this moment, even though neither one of them are being totally honest with the other. Now, if the garden is a sign of what Kit has "together" and going on for himself, why has he never shown this to anyone before? That question is easily answered by the ending, when the Grand Duke hears Cinderella singing, but doesn't want to give her the chance to try on the slipper, but Kit reveals himself to be one of the soldiers and saves Ella from Lady Tremaine. The only trade Kit knows, as he tells Ella, is being a monarch, and hiding your inner-strength and perception of who is really your friend, is a gift that monarchs need to survive their courts, just as inner-strength is a gift Ella needs to survive her step mother and sisters. So, just as the King was able to deduce that Kit had "become your own man," this is the achievement he wanted to show Ella as being worthy of her and why she should trust him. Why does she lose her shoe? Well, this is a garden, after all, and a garden where two lovers are is meant to invoke the Garden of Eden and Original Sin. After the death of her father, this is the first time Ella has had fun and being with Kit probably makes her want to have a bit more fun, in other words, dropping the shoe is a sign that she is dropping her will, and ready to go a bit further with Kit; the clock begins to sound the midnight chimes, however, and Ella's will is saved by her need to get away before the breaking of the spell. 
When Lady Tremaine has gone up to the attic and found Ella's glass slipper, Ella tells her, I may not have been able to protect my father from you, but I will protect the Prince from you! Just as Ella tried to protect the stag from the hunting party, so Lady Tremaine has become, with her daughters and the Grand Duke, a hunting party after the Prince. And Kit is a part of the hunting party after his (symbolic) self because he has bought into the brainwashing of who he must marry. Likewise, Ella is at risk for also becoming a member of "her own hunting party" in giving into the cruelty of her step sisters and Lady Tremaine. But there is an element that saves Ella: others.
This is a great scene because it sets up Ella going into the woods and seeing the stag and Kit, and helps us, as the viewers, to understand what is going on inside Ella and Kit. This is the breakfast table, and Ella went to sleep by the fire because the attic was so cold; when she awoke, she had ash and cinders on her face, which one of the sisters uses to name her Cinderella. Please note that Lady Tremaine wears a leopard print house coat, and an animal print is a sign that the person is taken over by their animal appetites, which is fitting at the breakfast table, i.e., Lady Tremaine fulfills her appetites for being an animal by "eating up" little, helpless Cinderella who can't defend herself (more on this below). Additionally, the abuse and scorn which is "served" to Ella as she serves breakfast is "eaten up" by Ella as the truth. Whenever a character is "eating" or "drinking" something, it's a sign that they are "taking in" whatever is being discussed and digesting it. Because Ella has digested the "mockery" dished out to her, she gets on her horse and rides into the forest, not being able to stomach what they have told her (the broken plate is a symbol for Ella herself, because it's a vessel, and the body is a vessel for the soul, so her spirit has been broken, just as the plate has been, but meeting Kit, and receiving from his generosity, puts her back together again). 
When Ella's mother dies, she looks after her father; when her father dies, she thanks the man who brought the branch she wanted from her father and then she is forced to look after Lady Tremaine; when she isn't given much food to eat, she looks after the mice; when her step sisters abuse her, she helps Kit; when Lady Tremaine destroys her dress, there is the "old woman" in the garden to give milk to. Ella exercises, whether she realizes it or not, the philosophy of the Other, i.e., that we discover who we ourselves are by giving to another. This is an important philosophy, because it is utterly subverting to feminism.
Perhaps the theory best suited to reading this film is Reader Response theory: most television watchers know Cinderella' (Lily James) as Lady Rose on Downton Abbey, as well as Sophie McShera as Daisy (so the role of the upper and lower class has been reversed in Cinderella).  There is a definite moment in the beginning of the film when Cinderella stands by a wall of can bells, nearly identical to those of Downton, invoking the show. Likewise, fans of Game of Thrones know Richard Madden (the Prince) as Robb Stark. You might also have caught the reference to Mel Gibson's Braveheart: when Lady Tremaine orders Ella to go to the seamstress and order her a gown in mode de Paris, Lady Tremaine makes the comment that Ella is probably too dumb to know what that is, to which Ella responds with a length reply in French that none of them understand, as when William Wallace is before the English Princess and she speaks in French because she doesn't think Wallace will understand her and he shows her up. When Ella is young, and her father has returned from a trip, he brings her a paper butterfly and teaches her to say papillon, which invokes the 1973 film Papillon starring Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen.I can't even begin to make a comprehensive "reading" of all these different characters and films coming together, but we know that William Wallace was facing an enemy trying to destroy his entire country; in Papillon, McQueen's character, who has a butterfly tattoo the way Ella's dress and glass slippers have butterflies, was in prison and driven to near insanity on solitary confinement and half rations. There are two points of Branagh doing this: first, when we see our favorite characters or movie mentioned, it acts as an homage and we are rewarded for being fans of that actor/film (the audience member has then become the "implied audience," meaning, something was done in the film for their sake, so they would catch onto it). Secondly, incorporating bits from other shows allows the film makers to expand the visual vocabulary for characters and the plot by referencing films that have done the same thing before and that the film makers know you have seen so they can tap into your previous knowledge and apply it to their films (Alfred Hitchcock was a master at this). 
Feminism seeks to make a woman the center of her universe, thinking that in doing so, she is being empowered, because that is what men tend to do. Ella, by continuously being concerned with "the Other," whoever or whatever that may be in her situation, proves that she is helping, healing and empowering herself when she does so, and it's only people with insufferably small characters who do otherwise, like Lady Tremaine. Even though someone might argue that Lady Tremaine is advancing her daughters' futures, she actually is advancing and securing her own. We could say there is another woman advancing her own agenda: the fairy godmother.
Lady Tremaine tells Cinderella "her story." Lady Tremaine initially married for love, had her two beautiful but stupid daughters, and then her husband died; then, she married Cinderella's father for the advancement of her two daughters, and instead, she had to face the daughter he loved every single day. She then demands that Cinderella make her the head of the household in the Palace (assuming she is going to marry the Prince) so that she can rule with a strong hand from "behind the throne" and her daughters will get good marriages. Cinderella refuses, then Lady Tremaine breaks the glass slipper. What do we make of this? Well, Lady Tremaine has red hair (Ms. Blanchett normally has blond hair) so we can deduce that her thoughts are those of love or anger, because red is the color of the appetites: either we hunger for love or we hunger for revenge against those we perceive have not loved us; likewise, her mouth (the symbol of the appetites) are always painted with bright red lipstick, so they are heavily emphasized. The faint color of green Lady Tremaine wears in the image above, is echoed throughout the film with all her outfits (rather like the lizards that are turned into the footmen for Cinderella's carriage). Green either signals hope (as in spring when everything is reborn anew) or that something is rotten. Given her treatment of Cinderella, and her willingness to betray the Prince, we should probably deduce that, what Lady Tremaine was describing as "love" with her first husband, was more like "lust" or "desire," a craving for a "good time" and "happiness" rather than the kind of sacrificial love that strengthens us and makes us more virtuous. 
Who is the fairy godmother?
Portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter, there is a very solid reasoning to base a theory that Ella's fairy godmother is actually, in some way, the deceased mother of Kit. At the end of the film, after they have been married, Ella and Kit look at their family portraits, and the portrait of Kit's mother looks very much like the fairy godmother when Ella gives her the bowl of milk. Why would Branagh do this? Kit has a conversation with his father about who he must marry, and the King tells his son he must marry a princess for the good of their kingdom, and then Kit reminds him of why the King married his wife, Kit's mother, which was for love, not advantage. If Kit's mother has been re-incarnated (in a very vague sort of way) to be the godmother of Cinderella, it would make sense that she would want her son to marry for the same reason she and the king married, and--having watched Cinderella and knowing of her virtue and goodness--has decided that she would be perfect for her son; that means, the Prince is still entering into an "arranged marriage," but one that his mother arranged, not his father or political advisers.
Why does the fairy godmother first appear to Cinderella as a beggar woman? For the same reason the Prince first tells Cinderella that he is only an apprentice: to see how she will treat her (this strengthens the argument that she is, in fact, Kit's mother). The fairy godmother has a habit of popping her neck, why? The neck is what leads us in life, it's like our leash; that she keeps "popping it" suggests that she is "aligning" her priorities to make sure they are not getting out of whack and she is leading Ella on the right path, i.e., not revenge against Lady Tremaine and her step sisters, rather, to see Kit and get to take the king up on his invitation to the ball. There is an important costume element in this character, and that is her "bustiness." In several shots, it looks like her breasts are going to pop out of her dress; why? Because she is a mother, and mother's nurture, and there is no better symbol of a mother's nurturing than her breasts from which her child feeds when they are a helpless infant. It's not wrong, in other words, that Lady Tremaine wants to advance her daughters, the way the fairy godmother is advancing Ella; what's wrong is, Lady Tremaine doesn't nurture them the way Ella's mother did, with the milk of kindness and love. This is important, because--at the end, when Lady Tremaine tries to forbid Ella from trying on the slipper because she is Ella's "mother,"--Ella replies, "You have never been my 'mother'" and that's because she had done nothing to love and nurture Ella. We can easily argue that Lady Tremaine has never been a mother at all because her daughters have turned out so badly that she hasn't even been a mother to either of them. 
This is a rather important question we should ask, since it is a deviation from the original story: how does Lady Tremaine know to look for the glass slipper, and how is it that she knows where to find it? Ella has been regulated to the attic (the higher up a person is in the building, the higher their state of consciousness; Ella, being in the attic, means that she regularly meditates on life and herself; Lady Tremaine, however, does not, but having gone up to the attic to see what she can see, she, too, enters a higher state of consciousness and that's why she tells Ella "her story"). The primary difference between Ella and Lady Tremaine is that, Ella has been hurt, but became stronger for it, whereas Lady Tremaine has been hurt, but became smaller, meaner and weaker for it. Ella hides the slipper in the floorboards because it's a lowly place that surely no one would think to look since they all have their noses up in the air; Lady Tremaine thinks to look there because those precious and intimate memories we have get walked all over (the floorboards) by others. Why does Lady Tremaine break the slipper? Because she thinks that will break Ella, and since Lady Tremaine herself has been broken, she wants others to be broken, too.
If the fairy godmother can create this amazing coach out of a pumpkin, why can't she create an amazing coach out of nothing? Or footmen out of nothing? Because only God can create something out of nothing, and it re-iterates Ella's tendency to see things, not as they are, but as they can be, which is how we should all see each other and every trial/cross that comes into our life. Why did this version not have the dog and horse turn into the footmen? Why are there lizards in the story? Just as the "transformation" takes place in the garden, and Kit takes Ella to his secret garden, so lizards, being cold-blooded animals, are a manner of serpent, i.e.. like the serpent who led Adam and Eve into sin. In one regard, the fairy godmother using "whatever" is around is a sign that we, too, should use whatever there is in our life to make us better people; in spite of Original Sin, we can still attain to virtue, and even because of Original Sin (which is why the lizards are part of the vehicle) and the help we receive from God, we, too, can and should become heroically kind and virtuously brave. On the other hand, especially in her ball gown, Lady Tremaine rather looks like a lizard so, in spite of God's help, she will sink even further than Original Sin.
What happens in the end?
Is this a satisfactory ending?
We have to ask if the Prince broke his promise to the Grand Duke to marry Princess Chalina if the Grand Duke would promise to find Ella, then he ends up marrying Ella? No, because the Prince knew that the Grand Duke was not entering into the agreement in honesty, that he had designs of his own, which is why the Prince followed them. We don't really know if "justice" is ever delivered to Lady Tremaine and the Grand Duke for their scheming ways; that they leave the kingdom and are never heard from again is still a happy ending, but is justice done? Absolutely. As Ella and Kit demonstrate, we have to live with ourselves, and we can either live a happy life by giving happiness to others, or a miserable life by making others miserable, and to have to live the rest of their lives with their own miserable selves if definitely the very best justice.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner
I could have gone on at length about how pro-capitalist the film is, I just chose not to because there was so much else to discuss. I hope you don't mind this time.