An Appreciation – Beauty and the Beast
One of the best sequences in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast, 1946) comes when Belle (Josette Day) first enters the castle of the mysterious Beast (Jean Marais). Done completely in slow motion, we see her come into the main doorway, go through the grand hall, ascend the main staircase, and roam the upper floor in search of the other person (or thing) living there. There is no dialogue spoken, and yet with this scene we experience the best Cocteau had to offer. It’s the perfect melding of acting, sound, art design, and direction. Like the rest of the film, it inhabits grace and elegance in all phases. The style has such enchantment that characters move across the screen as though they’re floating in air. There is no cynicism; the film embraces its magical qualities and asks us to fully accept them as well.
That’s why Cocteau starts off requesting that the audience put themselves into the mindset of a child. He deliberately interrupts the narrative before it takes off, and provides a handwritten note asking us to accept his story on its own terms, the way a child can accept them using their own imagination. From there, he delves into a world of mysticism, romance, and wonder. Jean Cocteau had always been more interested in the surrealistic possibilities of filmmaking, in the same way Méliès, Buñuel, Vigo, and Dali were—to name a few. Where some would prefer a film to portray life as it actually is, Cocteau portrayed it as an emotion or feeling. He was never just a filmmaker. He was a writer, a poet, and painter, but above all, he was an artist. The images created here have a painterly aesthetic, with each scene’s composition full of intricacy and detail.
Granted, the story of Beauty and the Beast (originally written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont) is an examination of the emptiness of surface imagery. “Never judge a book by its cover,” as the old saying goes. A young man learns to love another despite his hatred for his animal-like appearance. A young woman falls in love with that man despite his façade, and in doing so discovers the handsome prince hidden beneath. We’re well aware of this story, and chances are many are familiar with the 1991 Disney movie (which is great in its own right). This is similar only in the loosest of terms, but the context that brought Cocteau’s vision to screen makes it stand apart. WWII had just ended, as well as the German occupation of France. Having experienced such devastation for so many years, it would only make sense for Cocteau to tell an uplifting and emotional tale.
The story itself may be simplistic, but it’s made curiously multi-layered. What audience did he make this for? Is it for kids or adults? He asks us to watch it through the lens of a child; does that mean he expects only grown-ups to see it? Does it really matter? I suppose not, but there is a subtext pointing toward an adult sensibility. A lot involves just how sensual (and sexual) it is. When Belle first sees Beast and faints, he picks her up and carries her to the bedroom to rest. Many references are made to the body and the connection between people. Beast’s home is filled with body imagery, with magical arms sticking out of the walls holding candelabras and reaching out of the dinner table ready to help a person with their meal. When her family asks who helps her get dressed at the castle, Belle explains she never sees anyone other than Beast. Doors and gates open automatically. It’s as though the castle is a living, breathing thing. Even Belle’s boudoir has vines growing inside of it, and her door talks to her, introducing itself.
This is a film that asks to be revisited. How we perceive this as children may change dramatically many years later. When Beast visits Belle at the dinner table, with her breathing nervously as he approaches, the initial belief is that she is anxious from fear. After another viewing, it can be argued her reaction is of a sexual nature, supported by the way she subtly handles her dinner knife. During the scene where Belle has Beast drink water from her hands, it’s not only an act of kindness, but also an emotional (and physical) connection between the two, signifying their blossoming affection. The best kind of fairy tales offer something to both children and adults. This works as a highlight of the genre because of how much there is to discover, depending on where a person is in their life.
Other important elements in fairy tales are of the gothic and horror variety. For as much charm as there is here, Cocteau also includes a level of darkness. When Belle’s father (Marcel André) attempts to come home after a failed business trip (the family is in desperate need of money), his journey into the woods and to Beast’s castle has all the makings of a horror film. There are the heavy shadows, suggestive lighting, and even the well-timed lightning strike. All the statues come alive and turn their heads to see who is roaming around the rooms. If we were to look a certain way, the aesthetics have comparable traits to the old Universal monster movies. The set and production design (Lucien Carré, Christian Bérard, René Mouaert) with the accompanying music (Georges Auric) lays a creepy tone. The cinematography (Henri Alekan) and editing (Claude Iberia) have a stylized but off-kilter effect. When Belle’s father walks through the main hallway with the candles suddenly being lit, that is achieved by capturing the action backwards and then running the film in reverse.
Speaking of Universal monster movies, Jean Marais’s performance rivals the likes of Boris Karloff and Bella Lugosi. In fact, Marais plays three parts: Beast, Avenant (the brutish man unwisely trying to win Belle’s love), and finally the transformed Prince. As the character of Beast, Marais is expressively angry, sad, and loveable. The costume and makeup effects took nearly five hours to apply, but did not hinder Marais’s ability to emote. He gestures with large movements, and when he talks, it sounds strained and painful. There is hurt in nearly everything Beast does. His body begins to release smoke when he has killed other animals, and after one night of hunting, he shows up at Belle’s door covered in blood and smoke. The makeup is so good that Cocteau (who was also lovers with Marais) was not afraid to push his camera in for a close-up, getting the desired response. Amazing that something over sixty years old has such convincing special effects. We grow accustomed to how Beast looks, to the point where when he is transformed into the Prince, there is a level of disappointment, since he doesn’t look like the animal we fell in love with, but the man we grew to despise. There is a famous rumor that after a screening, Greta Garbo asked for Beast to come back.
Belle feels this way too, and her initial reaction is one of puzzlement. Instead of jumping into the arms of the Prince, she hesitates. What are we to make of this? Sure, they end up embracing, and magically jumping into the air in a beautiful shot, heading to who knows where. But it’s that little snippet of caution, where Belle questions if this is the “happy ending” she wants, where we ask what end game Cocteau is hinting toward. The major theme is finding beauty beneath outward appearances, but evidence would suggest opulence has a place to exist. When Belle cries, her tears turn into diamonds. Beast, despite being the ugly animal he thinks he is, falls in love with the most beautiful girl in the land, spoiling her with riches and fancy clothing. The idea of imagery has an ambiguous nature to it, since so much is emphasized toward the extravagance of the visuals. However, this isn’t an impediment to the film’s quality. The open-ended themes—whether intentional or not—allow us to come to our own conclusions, using what we consider most important to dictate how we react to what happens in the story.
The texture of the piece is something to behold. So much detail was added to the costumes and sets that we begin to feel overwhelmed by how much there is to simply take in. It’s a deliberate artificiality. Beast’s costume, with its elaborate jewelry and patterns, appears recognizable, but encompasses an otherworldly trait. Belle’s flowing garments—the way they fall and float around her—echo the swirling draperies present amongst the windows. Beast’s castle, covered in shadow, is haunting yet beautiful. Even something as minimal as the grand staircase not having any handrails adds to the overall effect. Nothing about this place feels ordinary; the supernatural has come and firmly inhabited the household. Compare this to the blandness of Belle’s home with her father, her bratty sisters Félicie (Mila Parély) and Adélaïde (Nane Germon), and her overly protective brother Ludovic (Michael Auclair). Stepping away from the castle, we see how plain the rest of the world is. Her sisters—jealous and clownish in nature—act as selfish, whiny little girls, while Ludovic and Avenant resemble an 18th century version of The Odd Couple. Beast’s home is a magical Wonderland, and the outside world has chickens and roosters living in the family’s travel carriages. If not for the love of her father, we can surmise Belle is more than willing to leave this place behind.
Making Beauty and the Beast turned out to be an arduous task for Jean Cocteau. Due to the aftermath of the war, working equipment was not easily accessible. Several kinds of film stock were used, but surprisingly helped in creating the poetic tone. Worst of all, Cocteau was stricken with a severe skin disease, so bad that he had to be hospitalized. While he was recovering, René Clément (Forbidden Games, Purple Noon) took over directorial duties. All of these obstacles, and yet the finished product is seamless and fluid. Whatever restrictions there were proved to be a blessing in disguise, as the result was a captivating fantasy. It’s a mesmerizing experience of the highest order, hitting on every emotional beat and nailing every visual trick it attempts. Films don’t change, but people do. There’s truth in that statement, yet there are those that manage to stick with us, and appear to evolve the more we grow and experience life. We discover hidden themes and ideas in the stories we love as we discover more about ourselves, and we leave with only a deeper appreciation of it. That is cinema at its finest, where your most recent viewing may be slightly different than the experience of the first, but in the best way possible. This is one of those films.