We hear a lot about the “magic of the silver screen” (although I confess we seem to have left magic behind for a kind of gritty realism — the “magic” has turned dark and somewhat morbid). It’s nice to haul out a classic that really is magical.
Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête is in many ways a remarkable film. It’s a fairy tale, Cocteau’s adaptation of the story written by Mme. Leprince de Beaumont in the mid-eighteenth century. The story, while fairly predictable to those who have any familiarity with fairy tales, is engaging: a heroine, looked down on by those around her (mainly her silly and vain, if not quite evil, sisters) bravely undertakes to fill her father’s place in the lair of a fearsome beast (a place earned by the unthinking appropriation of a single rose, which brought her father under the beast’s power). The beast, however, treats her quite gently — more than gently, in fact: she is dressed in rich garments and dines on the finest delicacies, although she always dines alone. The beast finally gives her leave to visit her father, with the stipulation that she must return within a week, or the beast will die.
For those who have any acquaintance with Joseph W. Campbell’s writings on the Hero, this is, indeed, a tale in that mold, as are all fairy and folk tales. To put it simply, there is only one Story. The journey, the sacrifice, the transformation are all there, if handled in somewhat unusual ways. On reflection, one realizes that both Beauty and the Beast are the Hero, and both are transformed, although that’s most obvious in the Beast. The key, as noted by Philip Glass in his discussion of the film, is love, genuine and freely given, something that is certainly within the realm of fairy tales, but also evidence of Cocteau’s own romantic sensibility. Interestingly enough, Cocteau sees this as the story of the artist, transformed from outcast to nobility, one of his recurring themes. To my own way of thinking, artists have always been our shamans, priests and seers, and not so far away from Campbell’s Hero, at that.
There’s an element of surreality in this production that, given the intellectual currents of Paris in the 1920s and ’30s, and the realities of German occupation in World War II (the film was made in 1946), is no real surprise. It occurs to me that fairy tales as a class are pretty surreal, after all. Cocteau captures it: the shining white stallion with the sparkling mane who knows exactly where to go, the doors that open as one approaches, those are maybe not so strange. The bodiless arms that serve dinner and that hold candelabra that light themselves, the sculptured heads that come alive — observers? informants? — are a little more unusual. The settings, too, are used effectively. Scenes between Beauty and the Beast on a wall topped by sculptures depicting a hunt take on an otherworldly quality, contrasting quite effectively with the comic mundanity of Beauty’s family home, her sisters in their satins and laces stalking across a courtyard filled with goats and chickens.
Both Josette Day as Beauty and Jean Marais as the Beast are superb, ably supported by an amazing cast. Although at some points the style is rather broader than we’re used to (this is, after all, a fairy tale), I detected no missteps. (This film is widely credited with lifting Marais from the status of “pretty face” to that of real actor. He deserved it.)
The version discussed here is the restored film released by the Criterion Collection in 2003. The restoration is beautifully done, clean, clear and a joy to watch. I make no bones about my love for black and white as a medium — and I think the best examples of black and white filmmaking can very easily make color look tacky. In Cocteau’s film the shadows are velvety, the highlights clear and detailed, and the finely rendered grays extraordinarily sensuous.
I watched with Philip Glass’ opera as the soundtrack. (The original sound, with Georges Auric’s score, has also been restored, and is also clear and clean). Glass wrote the opera to synchronize with the dialogue in the film, and while the synchronization isn’t perfect here (the music was written for live singers performing in conjunction with the film), it’s close enough. Glass’ signature strong rhythmic structure has been harnessed to the action of the film, adding to the momentum, and the opera is unabashedly and unrepentantly melodic. (And I have to say something here about Glass’ facility in writing for the voice: he has an amazing ability in that regard, as I’ve come to appreciate after immersing myself in his operas for several weeks.) And yet, more than the mechanical aspects of synchronization and the formal use of repetitive rhythmic structures as a foundation, there is the feel of the music: it’s more than magical. Glass has caught the nuances, the shadings, the “not part of this world” quality. The combination of film and opera is completely captivating.
(Criterion Collection, 2003)
Features: The set comes with a lavishly illustrated booklet with the full film credits, an essay by Cocteau, an excerpt from Francis Steegmuller’s biography of Cocteau, the original story, and notes on the restoration. (Strangely enough, the booklet doesn’t discuss Glass’ opera at all.) The disc itself includes commentaries by Arthur Knight and Sir Christopher Frayling; interviews with Henri Alekan, director of photography, and Hagop Arakelian, the makeup artist; the original trailer and the restoration trailer; a documentary on the restoration; “Screening at the Majestic,” the theater where Cocteau viewed the rushes, including reminiscences from Alekan, Marais, and Mila Parely (“Felicie”) at the locations used for the film, with narration from Cocteau’s diaries. Audio options include French dialogue with English subtitles, English dialogue, or no subtitles, and either the original soundtrack or Philip Glass’ opera.