Revisiting ‘La Belle et la Bête’

Picasso once said, ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.’ Jean Cocteau, a fellow artist (as well as being a poet, novelist and playwright) and the director of this 1946 adaptation of the famous fairytale, may very well have sympathised. The preamble which introduces the film, written by Cocteau, asks the audience to put aside the critical prejudices they have acquired in adulthood and instead embrace the film they are about to see with the simple, instinctive wonder of a child. We were all one once. And so he begins his tale with the magical words: ‘Once upon a time…’

And yet Cocteau’s version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is unique not least because it is as much a film for adults as it is for children. The characters and basic features of the story are retained (much of the Beast’s dialogue is taken word-for-word from Jean-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont’s version of the tale), and Cocteau even comically blends the opening scenes with the plot of Cinderella, presenting Beauty as the suppressed sibling of two ugly sisters. And yet the film should be enjoyed not only as a fantasy film, but as a painstaking work of art. It is no coincidence that the opening scenes, full of life and light, resemble the paintings of Vermeer and Rembrandt; and, contrasting with this, the dark surrealism of the scenes involving the Beast and his castle are not only full of amazing trick shots which at once frighten and enthral the audience (who can forget the arms holding the candelabra which protrude from the wall, or the eyes that follow passers-by from the stone faces on the mantelpiece) – but also with Freudian symbols and an electric eroticism which is barely kept below the surface.

The technical achievements that Cocteau and his crew succeeded in creating are a marvel, considering the era the film was made in. The war had just ended, the Nazis were gone (many critics have viewed the film as an allegory of the aftermath of Vichy France, with the unhappy family, bankrupt and trying to survive, representing a wounded country still recovering after the Occupation), but the equipment was old and outdated, money was scarce, black-outs were frequent and often forced work to grind to a halt. At the same time, much pressure was placed on Cocteau by those who believed that his was the film to give life once more to a waning cinematic heritage, which had taken a beating during the war and the turmoil that ensued. This was a daunting task for a man who hadn’t made a film for fifteen years (Cocteau made his cinematic debut in 1930 with the surreal ‘Le Sang d’un poète’), and indeed a strange one to place on the shoulders of an artist, at a time when mainstream cinema was still considered by many to be an inferior artistic medium.

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Cocteau, therefore, had much to prove. The stakes were high, the filming process was long and arduous, and there were no guarantees about the result. Yet Cocteau remained steadfast to his artistic principles to the very last – often getting himself into hot debates with his cinematographer Henri Alekan about how to shoot the interior scenes at the Beast’s castle, and refusing to listen to Georges Auric’s score until the film had been edited (which lead to a final edit which in places contains a bewildering contrast between what is taking place on screen and the atmosphere created by the music). Even basic things like chronology were not necessarily of interest to Cocteau – he did not care if it is clearly night-time when Beauty’s father first enters the castle, and yet it is twilight after when he steps outside after eating his meal. He cared more about Jean Marais’ heavy make-up being meticulously applied to make him look as much like a lion as possible than the fact that the actor (his lover and muse) could hardly move his face underneath it; in a similar way, it was more important that the costumes were as ostentatious and eye-catching as possible, rather than the actors being able to move around with ease, or indeed the fact that they were clearly wearing 17th Century designs, despite the fact that the story is set in the 18th.

In short, he cared about the poetry and the magic, the contrasts between light and shadow, both in a literal and figurative sense. And in these respects, he succeeded with flying colours; Cocteau, in making the story darker and more human, paradoxically adds to the magic. He gives us a fascinating Beauty in Josette Day, who manages to combine naïve innocence with an astounding sensuality, and a beast that is truly tormented – ashamed of his hands, which smoke before the beauty that he insists on holding prisoner within his castle until she agrees to marry him. This beast is savage – a hunter that tears out the throats of young deer, and yet a tormented man who tries desperately to restrain himself when faced with a beautiful young woman that he wishes to possess, brooding in the shadows of his prison. ‘La Belle et la Bête’ is a timeless, remarkably mature fantasy, and a masterpiece of storytelling. Seeing it on the big screen, newly restored, only makes the experience the more magical.