Scrawling the opening credits on a chalkboard, Jean Cocteau begins his 1946 romantic fantasy La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) by immediately breaking the fourth wall. Further revealing the illusory nature of his film’s fabrication, its first scene is marked with an on-screen clapperboard and a shout of “action”. The artifice of the picture is instantly apparent, as is Cocteau’s authorial voice, and it’s to that end that he also directly addresses the viewer, proclaiming the necessities of faith and belief when watching what is about to unfold and making a self-conscious, sincerely poignant plea for “childlike simplicity.”
When the narrative proper begins, Belle (Josette Day), a beautiful, inhibited young woman, is amid forbidding familial conflict. To the women in her life — her bitter, almost comically cruel sisters, Adelaide and Felicie (Nane Germon and Mila Parély) — she is the object of scorn and ridicule; to the men — her father (Marcel André), brother (Michel Auclair), and her brother’s friend, Avenant (Jean Marais) — she is showered with loving consideration. In this rudimentary rustic setting the family is facing dire financial difficulties, and though Belle is routinely denigrated by her female siblings she remains dutiful and pure, a humble observer of the friction. Her more direct involvement is triggered, however, when her father, lost in the forest one evening, happens upon a mysterious castle. Finding refuge and a meal, he discovers the curious setting is an animate realm overflowing with wonders and horrors. He also encounters its proprietor, the Beast (Marais), who condemns the man for stealing a rose and, as punishment, makes a heartbreaking bargain: the father’s life for that of his daughter. Informed of this, Belle, brave and selfless to her core, accepts the sacrifice and absconds to the Beast’s abode where she becomes his feted hostage.
Produced under trying circumstances, La Belle et la Bête was a discreet effort. Post-war conditions resulted in lackluster equipment, food and electricity shortages, and a general lack of material for sets and costumes. Compounding the complications was Cocteau’s persistently poor health. Still, working with director René Clément as his technical adviser, Cocteau and his team enliven (quite literally) the routine storybook milieu of the farmhouse and the Beast’s château, creating a dense dominion of magic and possibility. It’s also a world of profound emotion. The Beast is promptly enamored of Belle, but he is also aware of his ghastly physical condition and his inexorable animalistic impulses. He suffers from the shame and corresponding trepidation and, combined with Belle’s repeated denial of marriage, which he proposes every evening like clockwork, he endures tremendous despair. After spending time with the tormented creature, though, Belle recognizes his inherent decency, his near nobility, and he earnestly earns her sympathy. “I have a good heart, but I am a monster,” the Beast bemoans. But Belle consoles him, stating what will soon be obvious when her family succumbs to their greedy aspirations: “There are men far more monstrous than you, though they conceal it well.”
Modeled on Marais’ Alaskan husky, the Beast is a phenomenal conception of makeup and prostheses. While it was an arduous application process for Marais, a frequent Cocteau star and the director’s lover of many years, such is his performance, complemented by Day’s responsive engagement and Cocteau’s delicate treatment, that the creature’s latent goodness and the mutual trust — indeed, the genuine love — between he and Belle override any amorous convention of physical attraction. Per Cocteau: “My aim would be to make the Beast so human, so sympathetic, so superior to men, that his transformation into Prince Charming would come as a terrible blow to Beauty.” 1 The tortured soul evinced so compellingly and tenderly, then arguably upended by this comparatively banal transformation, was so effective that when seeing the film for the first time, Greta Garbo supposedly proclaimed, “Give me back my Beast!”
As he demonstrated with the films of his “Orphic trilogy” — Le Sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet, 1930), Orphèe (Orpheus, 1950), and Le testament d’Orphée (Testament of Orpheus, 1960) — Cocteau easily transferred his painterly and poetic gifts into a luminous, enchanted cinema. On La Belle et la Bête, in conjunction with cinematographer Henri Alekan and with lavish production design by Christian Bérard and Lucien Carré, his mise-en-scène radiates an exquisite rendering of air, light, and texture. Heightening the charmed expressiveness of the picture, Cocteau employs whimsical slow-motion, reversed action, and a series of graceful movements (Day is at one point placed upon a small, hidden wagon, gliding along the castle’s corridors), and the oftentimes surreal vision is enriched by smoke and mirrors and practical trickery. As statuary comes to life and candelabras are held by live human arms, the special effects, low-key though they may be, are nevertheless awesome and thoroughly efficient.
Written by Cocteau, based on Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 1740 story, La Belle et la Bête was neither the first nor hardly the last iteration of this tale “as old as time.” Yet Cocteau’s version, aside from being quite different from its source, is also miles away from the prior and subsequent screen versions. Writing in 1947, Bosley Crowther called it a “priceless fabric of subtle images […] a fabric of gorgeous visual metaphors, of undulating movements and rhythmic pace, of hypnotic sounds and music, of casually congealing ideas,” 2 and the film would win the Prix Louis Dullec award in 1946 and was nominated for Cannes’ Grand Prize that same year. There is a requisite suspension of disbelief, as with any fantasy work, and some have argued for the film’s Freudian imagery and its sexual undercurrent, both of which are understood yet somehow irrelevant. Beauty and the Beast is best appreciated as modestly as Cocteau stated at the start, as a work of simple, charming imagination. “When I make a film,” he wrote in reference to Orpheus, “it is a sleep in which I am dreaming.” 3 Here, one is privileged to enter that dream. It just takes a little faith.
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La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast, 1946 France 93 mins)
Prod. Co: Les Films André Paulvé Prod: André Paulvé Dir: Jean Cocteau Scr: Jean Cocteau Phot: Henri Alekan Mus: Georges Auric Ed: Claude Ibéria
Cast: Josette Day, Jean Marais, Nane Germon, Mila Parély, Marcel André, Michel Auclair
- Jean Cocteau, “Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast: More Than Meets the Eye,” Gwarlingo, http://gwarlingo.com/2012/jean-cocteau-beauty-and-the-beast. ↩
- Bosley Crowther, “The Screen in Review” (1947), The New York Times, http://nytimes.com/1947/12/24/archives/the-screen-in-review.html ↩
- Jean Cocteau, “Orpheus,” The Criterion Collection (2000), from “The Art of Cinema” (1992), http://criterion.com/current/posts/13-orpheus ↩