Little Princess

Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

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1995. Liesel Matthews, Eleanor Bron, Liam Cunningham. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki; Production Design: Bo Welsh.

orange: the land of visual spices

This is a film where the use of color is obvious and subliminal at the same time. Two parallel stories are told: one from an ancient Indian epic, the other from the time of World War I. Color brilliantly defines the sense of place for each. One is a golden fantasy, warm and magical; the other is a stark, decaying atmosphere devoid of light. We are aware that these environments are designed. But even as we watch, color is influencing our attitudes and our opinions of the characters. We are completely under its control.

The title, A Little Princess (as opposed to The Little Princess), implies the heroine is one of many. This is not a film made just for children. The film is about the power of the imagination to effect transformation, and the power belief to sustain it.

It begins as if we are looking through a spyglass. A tiny circle on the screen gradually enlarges and reveals an enchanted marmalade-colored world. A blue-skinned prince stands on one leg and plays a flute. Mists float over a stream that curves through golden sand, and peacocks roam surrounded by mango trees and birds of paradise. This is the enchanted world of the Sanskrit epic The Ramayana, the story which Sara (Liesel Matthews) narrates that will parallel her own. The princess' love, handsome prince Rama, leaves her to help a wounded deer in the forest. Before he goes, he draws a protective circle in the sand around her and admonishes her not to leave it. When she hears a cry for help and thinks it's the prince, however, she leaves the circle. Both the color and imagery in the environment signal a subtle warning as she runs past malformed green plants covered with thorns. There she finds an old beggar man who suddenly shape-shifts into the terrifying ten-headed green demon Ravana who imprisons her in a green tower covered with spikes. We will soon learn that these images foreshadow events that will happen to Sara. She will soon be taken from her orange-colored enchanted world and be placed in a very different kind of tower.

The location transforms and we see Sara with an Indian playmate, climbing over a giant head of a Buddha while a baby elephant exuberantly sprays himself with water from a golden pond. It is a land of magic, filled with immense waterfalls, gentle rivers, and sunsets framed by filigreed arches. It is a place where Sara's nanny tells her, "All women are princesses. It is our right." It is, however, a place Sara must leave. It is 1914 and Sara's widowed father, like Prince Rama, must go off and leave her and fight. For her protection, he takes her to New York to her mother's alma mater, Miss Minchon's Seminary for Girls. Before he goes, he gives her a doll dressed in the curried colors of India. Orange has become the conduit between Sara and her father. He tells her, "You can be anything you want to be, my love ... as long as you believe ... I believe you are and always will be my little princess."

green: the school deprived of light

Miss Minchon's, however, is anything but a protective circle for Sara. It is a damp and dreary winter in New York. The leafless trees are without any sign of the green that signals spring. As soon as her carriage turns the corner and the school appears, there is a sense of foreboding. The building is a moldy green, the kind of green that looks as if it has been deprived of fresh air. Its tower is pointed, not unlike the thorns of Ravana's castle. As Sara looks up, the camera frames the building from below, making the school look even more imposing. In a perfect character exposition, Miss Minchon (Eleanor Bron) descends a stairway from above, in a dress the color of bile. Whatever was fresh and alive when Sara's mother was a student here is long gone. This is a green that has been without sun for a long time. Minchon's stifling influence permeates everything; the walls, the faculty, and the school uniforms are all this color that gives off a visual stench.

In a film that is a masterpiece of visual storytelling, Sara arrives dressed in pure white. In the presence of this decaying atmosphere, she becomes light incarnate. One of the first people Sara notices is a young black girl mopping the floor. Soon Sara learns this is the servant girl Becky (Vanessa Lee), and she is informed the girls are not allowed to speak to the servants.

The school has arranged Sara's room with her belongings from India and the effect of the difference is staggering. Rich golden and spice colors vibrate with even more warmth in this poisoned environment. Sara begins to reach out to girls who are suffering (including Becky), and soon her room is full of them listening to her exotic stories. This, of course, does not please Miss Minchon (a perfect manifestation of green as jealousy), who forbids "any more make-believe in this school." The girls, however, still sneak into Sara's room for enchanting tales of beautiful princesses and handsome princes. Prince Rama is wounded by an arrow, which is intercut with scenes of her father running through the trenches in France as clouds of poison gas advance.

Suddenly and without warning, Sara receives shocking news. She is stripped of her beautiful things, plummeted to orphan status, and sent to the moldy green attic to live with Becky. Frightened, with a tiny piece of chalk, Sara draws a protective circle around herself.

In a gray and stormy day, when Sara, dressed in rags, is out marketing, her shawl is ripped off and blows away in the wind. A tur-baned man dressed in the color of saffron with a monkey in a curry-colored jacket on his shoulder watches. Even through she is starving, Sara gives a sweet bun away to little girls who are hungrier than she. Grateful, they give her a golden yellow flower in return. "For the princess," they say. Sara greets the man with the turban who cares for an old man next door (See page 178). The man has lost a son in the war. Sara puts the yellow rose in the door for him as the Indian man watches from a window above.

orange, india, and the power of the imagination

Discouraged and on the verge of giving up, Sara clings to her imagination. When their attic room is freezing, Sara tells Becky that the air in India is "so hot, you can taste it." The power of her ability to visualize transports the girls from the freezing, moldy green attic to the warm orange light of India, where they, elegantly dressed, stand atop the head of the Buddha as the baby elephant plays in the water below.

Little Princess Ramayana Pictures

On a windy Manhattan street, orphaned Sara, in moldy green, and mystic Ram Dass, in the color of cardamom, recognize a connection to each other.

In reality, however, there is a blizzard raging in New York, and as Sara sleeps, the wind blows open the window in her attic room. The room, constructed in forced perspective, is full of multiple angles of rays of light. As snowflakes flutter in the light, Sara is drawn to the window. Almost as if waiting for her, the turbaned man smiles from his window across the courtyard. He raises his hands in a greeting of praise to her. She smiles and returns the gesture and spins and twirls happily in the dancing powder. He bows to her and she to him as the light and the snowflakes dance.

It is as if this encounter with Ram Dass (Errol Sitahal) creates a new magic. His monkey in the orange jacket ambles daily over the rooftop and comes to visit her, and they form a mystical conduit. Sara becomes stronger and more defiant toward Miss Minchon. The girls sneak up to the attic when the "Demon Minchon" is asleep, as Sara continues the tale of Prince Rama. The deer has given his life to Rama, and he races to the monster's palace to rescue the princess from the bile-colored land of thorns. A terrifying thorny Revana roars.

On a windy Manhattan street, orphaned Sara, in moldy green, and mystic Ram Dass, in the color of cardamom, recognize a connection to each other.

As Miss Minchon discovers Sara still telling her stories, she demands Sara give up her fixation that all girls are princesses and punishes both girls with double work and no food for the following day. Sara encourages Becky to try to believe that their table is groaning with muffins and sausages and that they're wearing elegant clothes. Sara dreams the prince kills Revana and rescues the princess from the tower.

In the morning the girls awake to a manifestation of the power of belief. The table is indeed filled with muffins and sausages and everything they desired. The girls adorn themselves in elegant robes and slippers that are waiting for them. Orange curtains and tablecloths and pillows of silk glow with golden marmalade-colored light. The power of Sara's imagination is so strong that this magnificent transformation is real. We know because even the Demon Minchon sees it, and it is her jealous rage that sets in motion a series of dramatic, finger-biting events that lead to the climax of the story.

Prince Rama kills the demon and frees the princess dressed in orange from the thorn-covered green castle tower. As the parallel story to the Ramayana nears its end, Sara too is freed from the green tower, and the green begins to disappear from the story. The tale ends visually as it began. A small circle around a princess and her prince. This is no longer a legend. It has indeed become real.

Sara's is not the orange light from Blade Runner or Gattaca. This is a honeyed-orange that comes from the sun and from the dyes from plants that grow in the light. The orange atmosphere in the two science-fiction films does not come from natural light, but a light that is filtered through an ether filled with toxins.

| Corrupt Greens |

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