Jean Cocteau began filming La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) almost immediately after the end of the Nazi occupation of France. It wasn’t a quick or an easy shoot. Cocteau had to contend with limited film stock of varying quality, cameras that jammed, aircraft flying overhead that ruined the sound, and the general disarray of post-war France.
The 56-year-old Cocteau was a well-known writer, poet, visual artist, and director of avant-garde films, but this was his first foray into mainstream filmmaking. It begins with an exhortation to audiences to remember what it is to be a child, and to experience magic without the jaundiced eyes of an adult.
This is probably a direct reaction to the critics (most notably Jean-Paul Sartre) who felt that Cocteau was not political enough. Cocteau’s only allegiance in life was to art, and it is appropriate that he made this film as a reaction to critics, since it’s one of the most beautiful and magical pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen. His plea to audiences that opens the film seems unnecessary. This is a film that speaks for itself.
In adapting the 18th-century fairy tale, Cocteau used a lot of the same techniques he used when he made his experimental 1930 film Le sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet); simple special effects, an obsession with mirrors, statues that come to life, and tricks of speed and perspective.
As in the original story (most famously written by Mme Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont in 1756, although she didn’t create the tale), Belle (played by Josette Day) lives with her merchant father (Marcel André) and her two nasty, selfish sisters, here named Félicie (Mila Parély) and Adélaïde (Nane Germon). Cocteau added two male characters, Belle’s brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair) and her handsome but shallow suitor, Avenant (Jean Marais).
The domestic scenes in the film are designed and lighted to look like paintings by Vermeer and Rembrandt. The characters all wear 17th-century costumes, and the interiors are beautiful to look at, even though the human drama is stifling and petty. Félicie and Adélaïde bicker and ridicule Belle, and are indifferent to their father’s rising debts. Meanwhile, Ludovic and Avenant avoid all responsibility and are only interested in the pursuit of leisure.
When Belle’s father rides off into the woods, the mood of the film dramatically shifts. Using a combination of real parks and woodlands with studio sets, Cocteau creates a magical fairy-tale world directly based on 19th-century engravings by Gustave Doré.
When Belle’s father first enters la Bête’s castle — revealed when a gate of tree branches magically parts — his shadow moves against the castle entrance even though he is standing still. Once inside, candelabras held by human arms mounted into the wall magically spring to light. It doesn’t matter that you can see wires holding the candelabras aloft; the simple but painstaking special effects are still breathtaking. When Belle’s father sits down in the banquet hall, sculptures of human faces on the mantel of the fireplace are actually the faces of human actors covered with soot, their bright eyes the only thing about them that looks alive as smoke pours out of their nostrils.
This delineation between fantasy and reality continues throughout the film. When Belle enters the castle to fulfill the punishment meted out to her father for picking one of la Bête’s white flowers, she floats through long corridors full of billowing white curtains in dreamy slow-motion. There are doors and mirrors that speak to her, and a bed with a white fur spread that slithers open. The special effects are simple, and a lot of them are done “in the can” by simply reversing the film.
It’s been awhile since I’ve seen Disney’s 1991 version of this fairy tale, but that film bears an enormous debt to Cocteau’s version. Everything from the look of the beast to the costumes, set design, and subplot about Belle’s jealous suitor are lifted directly from this film. While the Disney version is perfectly competent, it doesn’t have the otherworldly power of Cocteau’s vision. La Bête, in particular, is less cuddly and more uncanny here. He’s played by Jean Marais, who also plays Belle’s suitor, Avenant, which would be distracting if he wasn’t completely unrecognizable under the heavy makeup and mountains of hair. Marais plays la Bête as a noble, leonine creature with a deep nasal monotone. Unlike the lovable furball of the Disney film, there are a few moments in which he is truly frightening; appearing as if by magic when Belle’s father picks a flower, drinking from a brook on all fours like an animal, or standing over the carcass of a deer that he has mutilated.
Given that Cocteau was gay and Marais was his longtime lover, it’s tempting to read a lot into this film. For Freudian readings of heterosexual power dynamics and the vagaries of lust, the Beauty and the Beast myth is second perhaps only to the story of Bluebeard. Are all men beasts who must stifle bloodthirsty and rapacious urges in order to be with women? Did Cocteau, who had begun to suffer from painful eczema, feel like a beast himself?
All theories are welcome, but I prefer to heed Cocteau’s advice in the preface and take this magical film at face value.