Beauty and the Beast has always been my favourite fairy tale. I remember going to see the Disney film at the cinema for a schoolmate’s seventh birthday. As a bookish only child, I took that version deeply to heart and still love it to bits; but for pure cinematic fantasy and elegance, Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version is hard to beat. Rich, sumptuous and stylised, it’s a feast for the eyes (and is best watched with a glass of wine and some chocolate truffles). Cocteau begins by writing out the credits on a blackboard, followed by a handwritten text in which he makes it clear that we must suspend our disbelief and enjoy the story as children would. He signs off with the words ‘Il était une fois [Once upon a time]...’
La Belle et la Bête does need to be watched without cynicism and with a mind open to the magic of it. To modern eyes the stagey acting feels rather overdone and much of the film is self-consciously archaic (consider that this was released in the same year as The Big Sleep). But it still looks absolutely ravishing: in every scene it’s clear that Cocteau is first and foremost an artist rather than simply a director. Belle’s home and the costumes of her family are based on seventeenth-century Dutch genre paintings, while the Beast’s castle is a sumptuous overgrown ruin where Pre-Raphaelite briars tangle through the rooms and classical busts line the hallways. Disembodied hands serve claret from crystal flasks. Jewels and gold glitter; the costumes, even when simple, are beautiful; and Josette Day (Belle) is suitably luminous – though perhaps slightly vapid for modern tastes. Cocteau plays to her strengths, encouraging her to strike dramatic statuesque poses which create little set-pieces within the film.
The Beast’s elaborate golden fur must have taken hours to apply and the end effect is as good as anything you would get with CGI nowadays. In fact, the special effects throughout the film are simple but still effective, from the self-illuminating candles to the ascent of Belle and her handsome prince at the end, half-hidden by Belle’s billowing gown. There are still places to spot the influence of this film today – I like keeping my eyes open for such things. I’ve been in a few bars and restaurants where wall-mounted candelabra are held aloft by golden arms jutting out of the wall; and of course there’s Bonnie Tyler’s classic video for Total Eclipse of the Heart – the long corridor with the billowing gauzy drapes is straight out of this film. Anyone know of any others?
The audio commentary on the DVD I own, which is distributed by the BFI, gives some intriguing insights into the making of the film (particularly the special effects), but I’d still like to learn more about it. Cocteau has made some interesting choices, particularly with regard to the Beast, which I suspect hint at further levels of meaning that I haven’t quite understood. For example, Jean Marais (Cocteau’s lover) plays both the Beast and Avenant, Belle’s handsome but good-for-nothing suitor – the latter a prototype for Gaston in the Disney film, no doubt. This duality is further complicated by the fact that Avenant must die for the Beast to regain human form and, when he does, he takes the form of Avenant. Is this simply a facile contrast of the beast-within-the-man and the man-within-the-beast? Is there some deeper, more disturbing meaning? Or did Cocteau just want to give Marais twice the screen time?! More reading must be done, I think, and I’d be grateful for any recommendations. It would be great, too, to use this as a way in to Cocteau’s other films – Marais also starred in Cocteau’s Orphée, which I haven’t seen but would like to (I have a special fondness for Orpheus, having played him in a rather excruciating school play; but that’s another story).
On a final, comparative mythology note, it struck me during the film that there are some links between the story of Beauty and the Beast and the Cupid and Psyche myth. I’d never thought of this before. A young woman brought to a fantastic mansion, waited upon by unseen servants, unable to see the true face of her would-be husband while supposing him to be a monster… There are differences, of course (by sneaking a look at night, Psyche at least reassured herself that her husband wasn’t a monster), but both stories require the woman to go away to complete tasks to prove her worth (whether that’s caring for her father or fulfilling the demands of Venus). In the end, both Beauty and Psyche learn to be humble, and it’s only then that they’re shown the true faces of their husbands and taken away to live happily ever after with them. Needless to say, I’m not applauding this as a desirable pattern for the modern girl to follow (for an admirable modern take on the fairy tale, see Angela Carter’s brilliant retelling in The Bloody Chamber) – but it’s certainly a parallel that I’m going to look into further…