A conversation between my sister and I earlier this week:
ME: “What should I write for the blog? I’m fresh out of ideas.”
CHRISTINE: “An in-depth analysis of Jean Claude Frollo.”
M: “I haven’t watched that movie in ages.”
C: “Can I do it?”
I give you Christine Eckelbarger’s (astoundingly) in-depth analysis of Jean Claude Frollo:
There are many a classic Disney villains, but none so poignant in my memory as Jean Claude Frollo. He can be found lurking between all the balls-to-the-wall musical numbers, wearing his ominous black and purple robes, orchestrating the puppet strings of Notre Dame.
But what makes a villain? A vendetta for evil? A perfectly twirl-able mustache? A humorous, if not somewhat incompetent sidekick? Perhaps, but I think a great villain is one who makes bad seem good. Someone who believes in their cause with such vigor, who goes about evil with such piousness, you can’t help but understand their madness.
Jean Claude Frollo is first introduced causing the death of some gypsies seeking sanctuary, and in turn causing the infant Quasimodo’s mother’s death (we’ll only discuss the Disney version of Victor Hugo’s classic, since if I included the novel into this we’d be here until kingdom come) and thus unintentionally ensures he will be stuck with Quasimodo for life.
As it is put in the stellar opening musical number, “And for one time in his life of power and control, Frollo felt a twinge of fear for his immortal soul.” And it is the only time in the entire story Frollo feels he could be breaching on the immoral. This is part of what makes Frollo such a despicable enemy. He lives out the law of the church, but none of the virtue, none of the compassion.
Even the narrator points this out, “and he saw corruption everywhere, except within.” This is exemplified when he falls in love with Esmerelda. An aside, if you haven’t listened to Hellfire on full blast while doing 80 down the freeway, you’ve yet to live. It’s truly a religious experience. One of the most notable observations from this musical MASTERPIECE is how Frollo addresses passion. In his eyes, all passion is of the devil. To remain a “righteous man” as he hypocritically calls himself, he must purge himself of desire and passion—but not in his heart, he instead intents to have Esmerelda killed. Now, any power hungry catholic official—and you’ll find a lot of them in French literature, trust me—would reflect the incredibly rich and faulted mentality of the judgement of the saints and the virgin Mary and God, but something you’ll find through The Hunchback of Notre Dame is this idea that the “eyes” of Notre Dame are always watching. They’re guarding Paris, waiting to burn the immoral to the ground; or so Frollo has interpreted. And rightly so, it is Notre Dame herself who kills Frollo in the end, as she turns a gargoyle into a demon, alive, before plunging Frollo into the burning city below.
If Frollo can’t have Esmerelda, then he’ll let the devil take her.
Now, I don’t suggest setting Paris on fire next time you’re struggling to cope with the complexity between faith and the heart, but something I find rather compelling about Frollo is his natural instinct to act. If there is something flawed in his eyes, he wants it corrected. He abuses this power, of course, as we see throughout the movie, but in Frollo’s eyes, he truly believes he’s upholding the law of the Lord.
Whereas, Esmerelda, a gypsy, an outsider, is the one praying to God to bring mercy, not for her, but for those she sees in need. In a beautiful turn of humanity, it is the one farthest from the heart of the church who is closest to the heart of God.
Besides the natural juxtaposition of most of the music and symbolism in the film—Heaven’s Light & Hellfire, Frollo’s desire to keep the wicked at bay and stay locked away in Notre Dame, and Quasimodo’s desire to be out in the world among his fellow man—there is an element in all this, that I think makes Frollo’s actions perhaps understood. In the theology of the Catholic church, all sins are considered equal. Gluttony is the same as murder, lying is the same as hate. Nothing is better or worse in the eyes of God (the eyes of Notre Dame if you’ll recall the constant symbolism of the church looming over Paris). And it is this practice that Frollo carries into his actions. Sentencing a gypsy he lusts for to die is no more important than giving bread to the needy, or throwing rocks at birds. In Frollo’s twisted philosophy, every action holds equal weight, which is really just another in the long list of perversions he has created, turning scripture into cruel laws.
If I may, let’s consider another Frenchman who is unable to breach the gap between upholding the law and and upholding what is good. Javert. You’ve heard of him? Another one of Victor Hugo’s creations and just as complex. Good ‘old French literature will have no shortage of unstable, religious middle aged men. And thank God; what ever would happen to the redemption arc?!
I shall leave you with this image. As Frollo calls out how the gypsy he desires will burn in hell, suddenly the shadows of the fire are thrown onto the wall behind him. But, on inspection, it is not the fire of hell licking their way up the brick walls of Notre Dame, but it is the shadow of the Saints, looming over Frollo. Perhaps Frollo’s hell, is to be judged, to be a sinner, and certainly, to be in the presence of the those who would cast the first stone. For Jean Claude Frollo, the only way he can remain a ‘righteous man’, his greatest pride, is to embrace the hellfire.
Frollo’s last words are, before he falls to his death into Paris burning below, as he raises his sword over his head to strike down the innocent Esmerelda who is trying to save Quasimodo’s life: “And he [God] shall smite the wicked and plunge them into the fiery pit.”
And so he did.