“Women are completely invisible for the benefit of men”: Benjamin Lacombe, illustrator of an unpublished version of “The Little Mermaid”, deciphers the new Disney

After revisiting Alice in Wonderland of Lewis Carroll in 2015, Benjamin Lacombe, author and illustrator, delved into the archives, manuscripts and correspondence of Hans Christian Andersen, the author of The little Mermaid, published in 1837, to illustrate a new unpublished translation by Jean-Baptiste Coursaud, published in November 2022 by Albin Michel editions. His work, his originals and his research on The little Mermaid are also to be discovered in the exhibition “Benjamin Lacombe and the Victorian”, dedicated to him at the Château d’Hardelot, in the Pas-de-Calais, until November 5.

Benjamin Lacombe saw for BlazeTrends Culture the new Disney Live of The little Mermaid released May 24 in theaters. He gives his impressions before saying more about what lies between the lines of this masterpiece of children’s literature, and what makes this tale written almost two centuries ago an eminently modern text. and bold.

Franceinfo Culture: you have just discovered the Disney film. What are your first impressions ?

Benjamin Labombe: I didn’t really know what to expect because the first trailer was, let’s say, very colorful, with a lot of very flashy special effects… But in the end, the first minutes of the film contradict this first impression a bit, because the film opens with a stormy sea scene, very beautiful, very romantic, reminiscent of paintings by Turner. There are also quite a few references to Turner, but also to Füssli, or to Friedrich, and to romantic painting in general. There is in particular an evocation of the walker, by Caspar Friedrich. This painting, one of the most famous romantic paintings that evokes depression, is literally recomposed before our eyes in the film. It’s quite funny to see that in a Disney because you don’t expect to find this type of reference at all.

And basically, what did you think of it?

What bothered me the most was that the women, who play a major role in Andersen’s tale, are completely invisible here in favor of the men. The sorority, for example, very present in the tale, has completely disappeared. In the original text, the sisters of the Little Mermaid play a very important role, they help her in her quest and are ready to sacrifice everything for their little sister, even their hair. Whereas in the film, they are totally non-existent. And all this is done to the benefit of the male characters, the prince, above all, whose portrait is really much more elaborate than in the original tale and than in the first Disney film, so much so that he even becomes, for me, the main character.

What do you think?

He is the one who moves the plot forward, he is the one who understands the ins and outs of the story. He is a humanist long before his time, a progressive, who wants to ally himself with the people of the sea, who believes that we must try to understand each other, to trade intelligently with the world. He also has ecological notions. In short, it’s crazy how advanced, modern it is. And then also the father, Triton, an ecologist protector of the oceans, who has a complicated relationship with his daughter as often during adolescence, but the almost non-existent father-daughter relationship in the tale takes on a rather surprising magnitude in the film. .

What do you think of the Little Mermaid character?

The actress is very good, she sings well, for me this casting is the good idea of ​​the film. And I didn’t understand the color controversy at all. Who has ever seen the Little Mermaid in person to know what color it is? What’s much more annoying is that she’s a completely passive Little Mermaid. The only time in the film where she is active, where something about emancipation happens and where she becomes a woman who takes control, is when she saves the prince. Apart from this sequence, she is transported from the confined, protected environment of her father’s kingdom, then she is manipulated by the sea witch, then she is amazed by the prince… In short, she does not direct anything at all , she undergoes the events, which is not at all the case in the tale, where the Little Mermaid is a proactive and omnipresent character. There, it is completely erased. It’s really a pity. It completely changes the angle of the story.

Ursula, on the other hand, is quite successful, right?

So there, if there is a character that is completely missed, it is Ursula, who was such an extraordinary character in the 1989 cartoon. Such a subversive character, inspired by Divine, a transgressive drag queen, the muse by John Waters… She was perfectly reproduced, both with her very hoarse voice, her ultra-sexualized gestures, her intelligence, her perfidy, her self-mockery… All of that disappears in the film.

But in general, we feel that the whole technical filming process for the underwater sequences must have been extremely restrictive for the actors, because their acting is less convincing, we really feel they are hindered. I think the technique removes a lot of emotions. And other than in the scenes from afar when they’re swimming, you never really feel underwater. The lighting, the shine on the skin, the actors are all super well made up… These are things that don’t have to be underwater. It could be nice if it was really assumed, a little bit like a musical, but it’s not the case…

You have illustrated a new translation of Andersen’s tale. What does this character from The Little Mermaid mean to you?

What I wanted to express in the edition that I actually have with Jean-Baptiste Coursaud’s translation is this cry from the heart of Andersen, which is projected through this character. Andersen’s letters and manuscript confirmed this intuition I had of the character of the Little Mermaid, which above all speaks of identity, of the idea of ​​finding one’s place in the world, of feeling fundamentally different, not in its place, in its gender, in its social environment, etc. And that is completely erased in the Disney film. At the start of the film, when she’s under the sea, we don’t even know why she’s attracted to the human world, it’s not explained, she doesn’t seem to feel bad at all in this world, in this kingdom. Therefore, it is not clear why she wants to escape from it.

What exactly have you discovered in Andersen’s letters and manuscripts?

What Andersen clearly expresses in these letters (there are nearly 400 anyway), is that he projected himself into this character, that he felt the same pains as the Little Mermaid. I had this intuition that what was talking about The little Mermaid, it was something other than appearances. And the letters confirm it: it speaks of a love affair between two men. Andersen projects himself into this character of the Little Mermaid and her physical impossibility of being loved by the person she loves, just as he himself felt prevented from being loved for the same reasons. And he expresses it clearly in his letters, in which he tells Edvard Collin (the son of his benefactor): “I wish I had been a woman so I could be loved by you”. It’s a cry from the heart and he expresses it through this tale, which he started writing on Edvard Collin’s wedding day. It’s very telling, though.

Portrait of the writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) (GRAFISSIMO / DIGITAL VISION VECTORS)

How did this influence the graphic construction of your character?

The Little Mermaid is a character who literally mutilates herself to become a woman. She cuts her tail, which is quite symbolic anyway, and she loses her voice. And the voice is a little bit of a person’s identity, so by losing her voice to become a woman, she kind of loses her identity. What I discovered is that the Little Mermaid is Andersen. So my Little Mermaid, she had to physically resemble Andersen, she had to have this gender ambiguity, short hair, an androgynous side. In my version, she has Andersen’s hairstyle, she has her look and she has a much more ambiguous aspect between masculine and feminine.

Melancholy of the Mermaid by Benjamin Lacombe, Gouache and oil on paper (Benjamin Lacombe)

For you, how has this tale remained very contemporary?

The great classics are always stories that span the ages. And then the matrix of the tale, the issues it raises, are deeply human, so they resonate with all eras. The little Mermaid was written 180 years ago, and even if we criticize the film, see the impact it still has today, it’s absolutely enormous. These are themes that echo today’s concerns: the climate crisis or migrants. The Little Mermaid is a character ready to risk everything, her world, her environment, her physical integrity, who crosses the sea, to find somewhere else that she hopes is better…

But is this aspect present in the film?

In the tale, when she arrives in this other world, she is misunderstood. She won’t be able to talk. In the film, it’s less visible because she is well received, they put on her beautiful dresses, and so on. But that’s not at all what happens in the original tale. That’s what I tried to show (and it’s crazy because it’s the first time we’ve shown it): she’s dressed as a man, in a page costume, so as a servant. She sleeps on the threshold of the door of the prince’s room, on a small cushion, like an animal. We can really see a parallel here with the way migrants are welcomed, misunderstood, dehumanized, so obviously the resonance of this tale is huge because it talks about deeply human issues.

But the ending is also very different between the original text and the film, and the ending was even modified by Andersen. For what ?

Yes, the end of the tale has been modified, we see it in the manuscript, which has been crossed out. Andersen writes in his correspondence that he cannot keep this ending because it reveals too much about himself. In this ending, the Little Mermaid says: “When I am dead, I will be able to be loved for who I really am, that is to say detached from my bodily envelope.” By becoming a soul, she finds her identity and she can be loved by her prince.

“Andersen manages to detach the physical identity from the deep identity of a being. In that, it’s a revolution. I don’t think anyone has written something like that before him, in such a clear way. “

Benjamin Lacombe

at BlazeTrends Culture

An artist like Andersen, who felt different, who couldn’t express and find his love, will express it through his art and his stories. This reveals a lot about Andersen’s work, why he also wrote The ugly Ducklingagain a being that is born in a body that is not the right one, or Snow Queen, who shares his heart with a little boy… This is why this tale is very contemporary. It raises real questions about identity and gender. This is a very topical question, which occupies a lot of people at the moment. This is a problem that has always existed, but this debate was not possible in 1837.

But this end said too much about him, and the one he finally kept is the one we know, where the Little Mermaid becomes a “girl of the air”, condemned to live for I don’t know anymore how many hundreds of years in a sort of purgatory, as if to expiate what she is. This end shows the weight of religion, and this idea that if we do not fit into the norms, we must pay the price.

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