Synopsis: Jean Cocteau’s sublime adaptation of Mme. Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy-tale masterpiece—in which the pure love of a beautiful girl melts the heart of a feral but gentle beast—is a landmark of motion picture fantasy, with unforgettably romantic performances by Jean Marais and Josette Day. The spectacular visions of enchantment, desire, and death in Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête) have become timeless icons of cinematic wonder.
eyelights: its visuals. its clever cinematic sleight-of-hand. its surrealistic moments. the fairytale.
eyesores: the duller third act. the quick wrap-up.
“Once upon a time…”
In North America, when one thinks of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, one thinks of Disney. After all, their animated film set fire to the box office and quite literally brought Disney back from the brink.
But there is also Cocteau. In fact, Disney’s version could be said to be the animated musical equivalent of Jean Cocteau’s classic film, seeing as its plot closely resembles his own adaptation.
Cocteau adapted Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s novella in 1946, 16 years after his debut feature film, ‘Le Sang d’un poète’. A hit in his native France, it is also one of his most renowned works.
I first discovered this film when I picked up the original Criterion DVD, many years ago. An early DVD buyer, I used to pick up Criterion titles just because they were on the label; it usually guaranteed quality.
I was quite impressed with it. While it felt slow at times, the cinematography and the creative sleight of hand that Cocteau partook in to create the magical world of ‘La Belle et la Bête’ were awe-inspiring.
Although I really did enjoy it, it took me something like 15 years before I watched it again – after upgrading to the blu-ray edition, if only because I knew that it would look marvelous in high definition.
Again, ‘La Belle et la Bête’ marvelled. Despite being made with limited means, its ability to transport us into it fantasy world is stunning; it’s all a question of stylistic choices and expectations.
The picture begins with credits that are written on a blackboard and then wiped off by actors. And, in some instances, they’re actually super-imposed on the screen and “wiped” off in a similar manner.
Not only is it a simplistic yet effective choice, this also makes you feel like you’re in a classroom, evoking childhood memories and the headspace that accompanies that. It re-situates us from the onset.
Further to this, we then get a text intro by Cocteau, asking us to treat this fairytale with the wonderment of a child – that is, with total suspension of disbelief. In so doing, he helps us be more receptive.
This is crucial because the story of ‘Le Belle et la Bête’ is pure fantasy: it defies all logic, not just in the existence of La Bête and his magical castle, but also in the character dynamics and behaviours.
But by then we’ve been mollified enough to give in. If only a little bit.
And that’s a good thing, because soon we’re taken into a world where chandeliers light up as people pass by, and wherein Belle’s arrival at La Bête’s castle is all choreographed, like a slow motion ballet.
These elements give a sort of surreal quality to the picture, and it helps us get into the spirit. Personally, I ate this stuff up; I like surrealistic cinema (give me Lynch, Buñuel and Jodorowski anytime!).
And it’s impressive to watch. The chandeliers were obviously filmed in reverse, but it was an ingenious idea. Less effective, however, were the living statues – a cool idea that was not entirely convincing.
The whole film is stylistic. A perfect example is the way La Bête carries Belle: it’s totally impractical, and no one would carry someone that way, but it’s designed to expose her beauty to the camera’s eye.
Similarly, some of the performances are designed to create an effect, not to reflect reality. A perfect example is when Avenant talks to Belle, but is really looking away from her, at us, for maximum impact.
‘La Belle et la Bête’ is truly a beautifully-crafted film.
Interestingly enough, the film’s weakness is the source material, which demands far too much credulity of its audience. Yes, it is a fairytale. And, yes, Cocteau has attempted to soften our expectations.
But it doesn’t always work.
For instance La Bête allows Belle to leave for a week so that she may see her ailing father – on the condition that she returns to him afterwards. But then he entrusts her with key symbols of his power.
Look, it’s a terrific gesture, but it’s also incredibly naïve of him to expect her not only to come back, but to safeguard those objects. This will obviously end badly. But it’s a fairytale, so we more or less dismiss it.
However, this leads to by far the worst part of the picture, in which Belle’s deep naïveté has her believe that her siblings are honest when in fact they’re conspiring to steal La Bête’s riches through her.
Since this part takes place in the “real world”, and not in La Bête’s magic castle, it’s subject to real world criticism. And Belle would have to be a real idiot to ignore the obvious signs of deceit around her.
So it’s not only hard to swallow, but it’s difficult to sustain any respect one had developed for Belle. Factor in the lacking mystique of the first two acts, in La Bête’s world, and this third act is something of a letdown.
To make matters worse, the ending is sort of abrupt: Avenant quickly gets killed while breaking into La Bête’s secret pavilion, but we are left unsure of what’s happened to Belle’s brother, who was with him.
Then La Bête is suddenly transformed. And, while it’s supposed to be because of the way Belle looks at him, we get the impression that it’s because Avenant was killed – that they merely traded places.
The ending is so poorly composed that it not only leaves a few questions unanswered, it also creates some. This is quite a letdown given how coherent and well-constructed the picture had been thus far.
(It is a known fact that Cocteau was gravely ill during the shoot and that Assistant-Director René Clément filled in for some of the shoot. I would be very curious to know who had his hand in this botched finale.)
In any event, ‘La Belle et la Bête’ is still a small masterpiece; it’s a dreamy adaptation of the French classic that will undoubtedly please anyone looking for 90 minutes of pure, old fashioned escapism.
The beauty of it is that, even 70 years later, it still works its magic.
Date of viewing: January 15, 2016