Last night a friend and I watched Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) for the very first time. Luckily, we were able to see the restored version of this French masterpiece on the big screen.
It is hard to remember just how radical and audacious this film was when it was released in post-war France in 1946. Purge any memories of Disney’s singing, dancing candlestick and teapot, for this is a film for adults more than children. Cocteau employs his tableware for more suggestive purposes (Belle “toys with a knife that is more than a knife,” observes Roger Ebert). Cocteau’s fairy-tale fantasy is teeming with such symbolism.
There are many elements of the film that may prove challenging for contemporary film-goers: the exaggerated stage acting and pantomime, and the hairy Chewbacca costume, which was cutting edge in its day, can be difficult to overlook at times. Cocteau was brought up on late 19th century French melodrama, and it shows. Yet his highly original fantasy transcends its era, and there is much in his film to relish.
Cocteau was a poet, painter, playwright, actor, novelist, and set designer, as well as a filmmaker, and his Beauty and the Beast is more like visual poetry than a traditional film narrative. The dialogue is spare, but the scenery lavish.
Cocteau even manages to make the opening credits memorable by presenting them on a chalkboard and then erasing them. The film opens with a crew-member holding a clapperboard to mark the start of the scene, but this shot comes to an abrupt halt as Cocteau interrupts to give instructions to his audience:
Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things.
I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s “Open Sesame”:
Once upon a time…
Cocteau’s implores his audience to suspend disbelief—to watch the film as a child would. Just as the opening credits on the chalkboard are erased, and the shot of the erasable clapperboard stopped, the filmmaker asks us to erase our preconceptions and expectations.
Since watching La Belle et la Bête, certain images have proven impossible to purge from my mind: the smoke-breathing caryatids with moving eyes flanking the giant fireplace, the endless hallway of candelabras held by living arms, the sheer curtains billowing in the wind as Belle floats by (a camera trick later adopted by Spike Lee, according to Roger Ebert), and the massive dog sculptures guarding the top of the Beast’s château.
Cocteau’s skills as a set designer, playwright, and painter are in full evidence in Beauty and the Beast. His opulent tableaux studded with smoke, stone, fog, fruit, candlelight, fur, diamonds, and blood are hard to forget and emit an eerie beauty. (The staged scenes of pioneering, film director George Méliès spring to mind). The elaborate costumes by Christian Bérard and Escoffierare and music score by Georges Auric are also dazzling.
The film’s costumes and set designs were inspired by the illustrations and engravings of Gustave Doré (shown below), and the farmhouse scenes are an obvious nod to the paintings of Jan Vermeer. This sumptuous artwork is the perfect muse for Cocteau’s re-imagined fairy tale.
Cocteau and his cinematographer Henri Alekan (who later shot Wings of Desire and Roman Holiday) use reverse and slow-motion shots, mirrors, and other camera tricks to striking effect. Cocteau’s decision to keep the camera as still as possible was against the prevailing fashion of the time, and according to Cocteau’s diary, the source of some friction with Alekan. Cocteau had this to say in the press booklet that accompanied the film when it was released in America:
In short, when I decided to make a film that would be a fairy tale, and when I chose the one that is the least fairy-like—which is to say the one that would need to make the least use of modern cinema techniques—I of course knew that I was going pontiffs and, as has been the case against the grain, against the tide, against the tide. Once more, I was in opposition to current fashion.
To realism, I would oppose the simplified, formalized behavior of characters out of Molière (at the beginning of the film). To fairyland as people usually see it, I would bring a kind of realism to banish the vague and misty nonsense now so completely outworn. My story would concern itself mainly with the unconscious obstinacy with which women pursue the same type of man, and expose the naiveté of the old fairy tales that would have us believe that this type reaches its ideal in conventional good looks. 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, condemning her to a humdrum marriage and a future that I summed up in that last sentence of all fairy tales: “And they had many children.”
I was therefore obliged to deceive both the public and Beauty herself. Slyly, and with much effort, I persuaded my cameraman Alekan to shoot Jean Marais, as the Prince in as saccharine a style as possible. The trick worked. When the picture was released, letters poured in from matrons, teen-age girls and children, complaining to me and Marais about the transformation. They mourned the disappearance of the Beast—the same Beast who terrified them so at the time when Madame Leprince de Beaumont wrote the tale.
When Madame de Beaumont published Beauty and the Beast, she was an impoverished teacher in England, and I suppose that the story is of Scotch origin. Anglo-Saxons manage the horror story, the weird tale, better than anybody else. In fact, in England one still hears tales of lords, the eldest sons of noble families, heirs to the title, hidden away in barred rooms of old castles.
The “trick” does work, and when the syrupy-sweet, smiling Prince Charming miraculously appears, we immediately long for the old, melancholy monster. Even Belle seems unsure that she likes the transformation. ”I want my beautiful Beast back!” Greta Garbo supposedly yelled at the screen when she saw Cocteau’s film.
The sexual undercurrent between Belle and the Beast is strong, and when the Beast yells at Belle to close her bedroom door, we know exactly what is on his mind.
As Cocteau biographer Francis Steegmuller points out in his 1970 book Cocteau: A Biography (quoted on the Criterion website), shooting La Belle et la Bête was challenging on many levels:
At the end of World War 11, when France was reeling from pain and exhaustion,
Like most of the combatant countries, France emerged from the war stripped; Cocteau himself was receiving food packages from Jean-Pierre Aumont in California, and when he fell ill, he was treated with American penicillin; everything was in short supply. Old cameras jammed, old lenses developed flaws, no two batches of film were alike, electric current failed or was bureaucratically cut off; there was small choice of fabrics for costumes; sheets without patches were sought everywhere for the farmyard laundry scene; the curtains of Beauty’s bed were stolen from the set.
There were the usual Coctelian coincidences and contradictions. In the manor outside Tours used as Beauty’s house was found a disc of Cocteau reading his poems; as a setting, the place was perfect—but it was near a military airfield, and though the goodwill of the commanding colonel was secured, he proved forgetful or a poor disciplinarian, and training flights constantly interfered with sound recording.
The Château de Raray, near Senlis, used for exterior shots of the Beast’s castle, had “the most bizarre park in France,” with a fantastic sculptured stone procession of hunting dogs silhouetted against the sky, atop a high parapet; that made it, too, an appropriate setting—but there in the north, rain was incessant. (And local children, come to watch the filming, ran off terrified as the Beast emerged from bushes.)
Just when the carcass of a deer was needed, the Paris wholesale game markets went on strike. Most of the cast was accident prone. Cocteau, scourged by his post-occupation eczema, so disfigured that for a time he wore “a veil made of black paper, fastened to the brim of his hat with clothespins, with holes for his eyes and mouth,” developed jaundice, and filming was interrupted while he was hospitalized in the Institut Pasteur.
Cocteau was almost 60 when he made Beauty and the Beast, and it was his first full-length feature. But the poet’s place in the avant-garde film canon remains secure. It is difficult to imagine the films of Bergman and Truffaut, or even Guillermo del Toro, without Cocteau.
La Belle et la Bête‘s breathtaking images have haunted me since the end credits rolled. The next time you find yourself at home alone on a dark and stormy night, give Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast a go. You just might be surprised by how radiant and enchanting a 67-year-old, black-and-white fairy-tale can be.
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