Film/DVD: review

Beauty and the Beast
La Belle et la bête

Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast
Written and Directed by Jean Cocteau

1946, France — 93 minutes, black & white, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Fantasy

Luminous, genuinely magical fairy tale of an impossible love.

Review

Visual comparison - Vermeer, Dore, CocteauRecently talking with a friend about our respective lists of the greatest films, I realized that for me the common element – in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, Beauty and the Beast and a handful of others – was that each film left me literally speechless, in awe of how the filmmaker's artistry can embody a profound and unique vision of life, no matter how seemingly "limited" the subject matter. Of the greatest films I have seen, Beauty and the Beast was the one I saw first, as a child. After twenty-five years and ten viewings – most recently the Criterion Collection's flawless restored DVD reviewed here – it remains the most beloved.

With each re-viewing, I see new layers of Cocteau's vision. As a child, I was enthralled by how real, and actually lived in, this fairy tale world seemed. And I was spellbound by the Beast, whom Beauty shrewdly sums up by saying, "One half of him is in conflict with the other half." He was brought fully, horribly and tenderly, to life by the combined skills of Cocteau, makeup artist Hagop Arakelian, and actor Jean Marais. Who can ever forget the Beast's riveting death scene, when Marais expresses worlds of pain, love, and self-understanding solely through the eyes peering out of a feral, hair-covered face.

Beauty and the Beast does not need today's digital special effects; it still works perfectly with its own low-tech but deeply resonant wonders. Cocteau creates simple but gorgeous – and unforgettable – tableaux, from a corridor of disembodied human arms grasping candelabra that burst into flame as you pass by, to Beauty's tear drops turning into diamonds as she weeps over the Beast's fate (and which revive her destitute family's fortune), to the final ascension of Beauty and Prince Ardent. What can surpass the dreamlike power of Beauty gliding, in slow motion, through the enchanted castle, or her father's disproportionately huge shadow pushing open the castle doors, or even the sparkling jewels which run as a motif throughout the film, from those on the Beast's velvet doublet to Beauty's gowns to the mane of the steed Magnificent. Then there is the indefinable magic of the scene at the manor with huge white sheets drying in the sun, creating silhouettes of striking power. (The crew spent weeks searching everywhere for sheets without patches, an unheard of luxury in postwar France.)

Cocteau knew that for his film to resonate fully he sometimes needed to break away from heights of poetic fantasy, so he punctuates it with several hilarious moments. Take the scene with Beauty's two wicked sisters, who provide much of the film's comic relief, smearing onion on their eyes so that they can pretend to be weeping in despair at Beauty's return to the Beast (all the time plotting their revenge). Another of my favorite moments is when the sisters look into the magic mirror and one sees herself as a wizened old crone, while the other is reflected as a gibbering monkey.

Cocteau worked closely with designer Christian Bérard and cinematographer Henri Alekan to create a picture which is an amalgam of the baroque and the surreal, and which shimmers with what the filmmaker called "the soft gleam of hand-polished old silver." (Their triumphant success is all the more extraordinary because they shot the film in 1945 under near-impossible circumstances, having only shoddy war surplus materials to work with.) Cocteau consciously drew on the techniques of 17th century painter Jan Vermeer (note the similarities of light, composition, and even the use of a mirror in Vermeer's "The Music Lesson," and how Beauty compares to "The Girl with a Pearl Earring") and the densely detailed fantasies of 19th century illustrator Gustave Doré (his "Puss in Boots" is a clear inspiration for the Beast). For other images, he turned to the rich vein of Surrealist art, including his own previous picture as director, the landmark "Blood of a Poet" (1930). Yet from these diverse influences, the poet-turned-filmmaker created a visually unique work which has come to define cinematic fantasy.

Technically, and aesthetically, it is astonishing how Cocteau wrested so much visual interest from a film comprised almost entirely of medium shots. A close look reveals how dynamically, yet subtly, unbalanced most of the compositions are. We rarely see a subject head on, but rather from a slightly skewed angle. And during some of the most important moments, Cocteau foregrounds an unimportant object (a candlestick, a tree branch) to block our view, to make our imaginations fill in the obscured main details. Throughout he also makes evocative use of shadows, both where you would expect them, in the Beast's mysterious realm, and where you might not, in the merchant's strangely foreboding manor house. This tense visual quality meshes perfectly with the film's complex emotional nature.

On one level, Beauty and the Beast is a perfect – and largely faithful – realization of a great fairy tale, originally written in 1756 by French author Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont while she served as a governess in Scotland. But Cocteau's film exists on many other levels as well, which is why it continues to appeal as much to adults as children. There have been many interpretations, including symbolist, Jungian, Freudian, deconstructionist, and even gay readings (Cocteau is not only a preeminent author, poet, artist, playwright, and filmmaker of the 20th century, he is also a central gay icon). All of these views help reveal the many, and sometimes contradictory, layers of Cocteau's vision.

At its simplest and most direct, the film paints a moral lesson as easily understood by a child as by most critics: Who and what you are – your true nature – matters more than your appearance. Or, as Beauty tells the Beast, some men who are handsome on the outside are truly monsters within. We see this idea embodied, in troubling ways, by many of the human characters, including Beauty's two sisters and, to a lesser extent, her wastrel brother Ludovic. But the most morally ambiguous character, and the one who gives the film considerable emotional depth, is Avenant. He is, of course, played by Jean Marais, who also performs the Beast and, at the end, Prince Ardent. Avenant is strikingly handsome, self-assured, and energetic, yet Marais also brings out his darker side, subtly in his attempted seductions of Beauty and overtly in his fatal greed at the end. What compounds Avenant's resonance for the film comes out in one of the final lines. Beauty answers Prince Ardent's question about whether she loved Avenant with a breathless, "Oh yes!" How, and why, could our heroine – who comes to see through the Beast's fearsome persona to the torn yet righteous man within – ever have been in love with someone like Avenant? That is yet another of the film's emotional mysteries, the ones which may appeal more to, and perhaps even unsettle, adult viewers.

One of the most fascinating, and visceral, comments on this film is musical. Composer Philip Glass (whose works include the operas Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and The Voyage, and film scores Koyaanisqatsi, Mishima, and The Hours) set Cocteau's screenplay to music which runs simultaneously with the picture. The new restored DVD of Beauty and the Beast synchronizes the film with Glass's opera as a separate audio track, as the composer intended. The film's original, magisterial score by Georges Auric is one of cinema's greatest; and Cocteau knew exactly when to use it – or silence – for maximum effect. But Glass uses his patented syncopated rhythms and repeated symmetrical sequences of chords to create a haunting alternate voice for the picture. Distinct from Auric, Glass's score reveals the sometimes dark and disturbing emotional subtext, rather than the fairy tale sense of wonder. Previously I had enjoyed the opera as an audio recording; but when joined with the film it was utterly compelling.

Beauty and the Beast is a film I look forward to reexperiencing for the rest of my life. It has a way of getting under your skin, even entering your dreams. The closer you look at it, the more mysterious, and spellbinding, it becomes.

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Crew

  • Written & Directed by Jean Cocteau
  • "Illustrated by" Christian Bérard
  • Cinematography by Henri Alekan
  • Makeup by Hagop Arakelian
  • Edited by Claude Ibéria
  • Music by Georges Auric

Cast

  • Jean Marais as Avenant/ The Beast/ Prince Ardent
  • Josette Day as Beauty
  • Marcel André as the Merchant (Beauty's father)
  • Michel Auclair as Ludovic
  • Mila Parély as Felicie
  • Nane Germon as Adélaïde

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DVD

The Criterion Collection have created one of the most extraordinary DVDs I have seen. The painstakingly restored print is of near-perfect image and sound quality, and the wealth of extra features enrich Cocteau's masterpiece in many ways, from facts about the making of the film to a wide range of interpretations. Also included is a complete performance of Philip Glass's magnificent operatic version of Beauty and the Beast, synchronized to the film (on an optional audio track) as the composer intended.

DVD Details

Reviewed March 9, 2003

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