“Belle Dame” Revisited
A new stop-motion animation film based on a story by Neil Gaiman offers a slightly more than passing allusion to Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” Directed by Henry Selick (Nightmare Before Christmas), Coraline follows a young girl neglected and ignored by her parents into a parallel world (discovered through a small door in the old mansion into which they’ve recently moved) that contains a set of “other” parents, led by the mother, who have mastered the art of wish-fulfillment. The only difference between the real world and the alternate one: the characters in the latter have buttons sewn over their eyes, marking them as automota of a sort. As the “other mother” begins to ply Coraline with goodies and entertainments, it quickly becomes clear that the former has devious plans for Coraline. And it is not long before the “other mother” gives Coraline an ultimatum: to remain in this happy world, she must abandon her real parents and agree to have buttons sewn over her eyes, like the rest of the characters in the parallel world.
Coraline’s immediate rejection of this proposal unmasks the “other mother” as the sinister, manipulative “Belle Dame” she is. The latter name is given the mother by the ghosts of three children she has previously goaded into her world and subsequently locked away for eternity. A sustained meditation of Keats’ poem this movie is not. But it does contain an interesting take on the poem’s themes of seduction, economy of exchange (highlighted by the Merci / Mercy pun in the title), the danger of dreams, the abomination of love, and, most importantly, the enslavement of the seductress’ victims in a state of perpetual, ghostly death-in-life. Most conspicuously absent, as might be expected, is the theme of sexual seduction in Keats’ poem; the abomination of love in the movie is of the motherly kind. Absent the sexual politics (that makes possible an empowered reading of the Belle Dame in Keats’ poem), the “other mother” of the movie is thoroughly villainous. What’s more, the dominating visual imagery of the film is that of dolls and puppetry, something Keats poem only addresses by analogy.
For reasons entirely other than its debts to Keats, the film has received mostly favorable reviews, and if that’s not enough, it is projected in stereoscopic 3D! (But not, unfortunately, at this blogger’s theater.)