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O Magazine

Beauty and sadness in an infinite loop
By Víctor Navarro Remesal

A headline in EFE Salud (Health) spoils my morning: “Cosmetics and psychology ally to defeat the sad and tired face.” Quoting a mercenary study undertaken by a pharmaceutical company, they defend the elimination, with surgery, of those features that make us look withered. Not sadness in itself: only our sad face. I soon think of Eyes Without a Face and in buying a Rorschach hood, and go back to other comforting titles: Smile or Die, Beauty and Sadness, Confessions of a Mask... And, most of all, I remember Belladonna of Sadness.

Premiered in 1973 by Mushi Pro, with the studio on the verge of bankruptcy, Belladonna of Sadness is a hidden jewel in the history of film, a bomb of wild beauty. And almost a GIF-movie: it’s made up of panoramic views of fixed illustrations alternated with explosions of precious animations, repeated until they overflow. More than a lineal narrative is a collage, a remix of itself, a spiral of images-movement that goes back again and again to the same obsessions.

If this sounds like madness, there’s even more: the film is based in Jules Michelet’s 1862 Satanism and Witchcraft, filtered through a vortex of jazz and psychedelia, watercolours and tarot cards, Klimt and Kandinsky, anime and medievalism. In the result, the grotesque, the obscene, the beautiful and the sad are so intertwined that they couldn’t be extirpated with a scalpel. Have a look at these GIFs and see if you can erase sadness from the face of Jeanne, the Belladonna of the title.

That sadness is necessary is so obvious that it has even been defended by Pixar, so prone as it is to happy endings and Paulo Coelho-style moral teachings. That there’s always something sad to beauty is a recurrent idea in aesthetics: for Longino the sublime causes pain; for Japanese wabi-sabi emotion arises from imperfection, from the incomplete and perishable; for Adorno black represents both death and hope. Romantics walking around ruins, emos with their mascara running down their faces or hipsters refusing to smile: I’m not saying anything new here. And despite all that, the insisting press note: a sad face is something to be defeated.

Maybe out of shyness or for fear of sounding pretentious, we have stopped talking about beauty. Elaine Scarry, in On Beauty and Being Just, says that we have turned beauty into a taboo, fearing that it will distract us from what really matters or that it will make us “reifie” the other. The result of this rejection is not that the conversation has disappeared, but that surgery, cosmetics and charlatans (if you have nothing to say, say it nicely) have taken its space and have appropriated it, stealing the beauty from the rough, the sad, the lively.

I propose recovering beauty, remembering that it shouldn’t be an empty distraction, as Scarry defends, a moral invitation, not a simple form but an applied form, not only “how,” but “what for.” I propose taking away the monopoly of the concept from cosmetic surgery and Apple because, as Byung-Chul Han criticises in The Salvation of Beauty, they turn it into a smooth and impeccable deformation that anesthetizes us. That’s what we should defeat and not the sad features in our faces.

Films such as Belladonna of Sadness make us face the beautiful and the sad, and shake our ideas and emotions. They wake us up. Because, as Ursula K. Le Guin affirms, “the majority of adults already know that life is hard and full of pain, and look at art in search for a confirmation of this knowledge, as a form of consolation.” Or as Makinavaja says: “In a rotten world with no ethics, us sensitive people are only left with aesthetics.”