(1946) Written and directed by Jean Cocteau; Based on the story by Madame Leprince de Beaumont; Starring: Jean Marais, Josette Day, Mila Parély, Nane Germon, Michel Auclair and Marcel André
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“To find trees where there are none, or something where it shouldn’t be, such as a hat off a head in one shot but on again in the next, are, as it were, cracks in the wall through which poetry can penetrate. Those who notice such spelling mistakes are the real illiterates and cannot be moved by fantasy anyhow. Such details have no importance.” – Jean Cocteau (from Diary of a Film, by Jean Cocteau)
Fairy tales stand apart from more conventional stories because of their timeless quality, passed down from generation to generation. They reside on their own plane, a kind of universal language that’s understood and enjoyed by young and old. When or where they take place isn’t relevant, compared to the lessons they teach us about human nature. Beauty and the Beast (aka: La Belle et la Bête) begins, fittingly enough, with “Once upon a time…” In his introduction, writer/director Jean Cocteau invites us to enjoy his film with the innocence and wonderment of a child. Beauty and the Beast, which Cocteau described as “a fairy tale without fairies,” was years in the planning, and filmed from late 1945 through the first half of 1946. He utilized real-life locations for the exteriors (which gave the film a more expansive feel), while the interiors were filmed in sound stages around Paris. An 18th century manor house in Rochecorbon* served as the home for Belle and her family, and the exterior of a sprawling estate in Raray became the Beast’s castle. The production suffered numerous setbacks, including the illnesses of Jean Cocteau** and cast members Jean Marais and Mila Parély, multiple power outages, and budgetary constraints that necessitated the use of several different film stocks. It’s a testament to Cocteau’s vision, chronicled extensively in his Diary of a Film, that he never lost his way.
* Fun Fact #1: For his location shoot in Rochecorbon, Cocteau was plagued with constant flyovers from a local military airfield – the anachronistic drone of the aircraft (and their presence in the sky) would have undoubtedly taken viewers out of the fairy tale world.
** Not-So-Fun-Fact: Cocteau suffered from numerous ailments throughout the course of filming, including facial rashes, boils, a tooth abscess, and painful sensitivity to the studio lighting. At one point, some of his symptoms became so severe that he was hospitalized for a few days, followed by several days of recovery, bringing production to a temporary halt.
Belle (Josette Day)* spends her days caring for her merchant father (Marcel André), and being subservient to her two cruel, narcissistic sisters Félicie and Adélaïde (played by Mila Parély and Nane Germon, respectively). While she toils away with the housework, they dress in the finest clothing, acting like royalty, even though the family fortune has been squandered. Her brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair) mocks her sisters for their haughty ways, while he wastes his hours with his friend (and Belle’s potential suitor) Avenant (Jean Marais).** One fateful evening, Belle’s father, too destitute to pay for a room at an inn, is forced to ride through the forest alone at night. He encounters an enchanted castle, where he spends the evening. During a walk in the garden, he picks a single rose for Belle, which incites the sole denizen of the estate, a fearsome Beast. The enraged creature spares his life, in exchange for one of his daughters. Despite her father’s protests, Belle selflessly volunteers to go in his place. Anyone familiar with Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s enduring story, or its many incarnations and permutations, will know the rest.
* Fun Fact #2: According to film historian Arthur Knight, Josette Day was so frightened of the Beast’s horse “Magnificent,” featured prominently in the film, that Cocteau used a double for her riding scenes.
** Fun Fact #3: In de Beaumont’s original story, Belle had three brothers, which was changed simply to Ludovic for the movie. Avenant served as Belle’s sole suitor, in place of multiple (unsuccessful) suitors in the story.
Cocteau found a fitting Beast/Avenant/Prince in his lover/muse of several years, Jean Marais. The triple role was especially demanding as the Beast, which required enduring the extensive makeup by Hagop Arakelian.* Despite the limitations imposed by the makeup (which restricted what he could eat, and often placed him into a foul temper), Marais’ passionate performance shines through. With his face obscured, he conveys pathos with his eyes and emotes through body movement.
* Fun Fact #4: Marais’ Beast makeup required five hours to apply, and his scenes sometimes demanded that he stay in makeup for up to 15 hours at a stretch (a feat that would likely have tested anyone’s patience).
The film’s design required ingenuity from Cocteau’s dedicated team of craftspeople, accomplishing so much with so little. In his film diary, Cocteau lamented that there wasn’t a budget to shoot the film in color. Black and white, however has its own magic. Per his instructions, the castle interiors were based on the works of French illustrator Gustave Doré. The imagery, particularly in the Beast’s castle, resembles pencil sketches or charcoal drawings, effectively mimicking what you’d expect to find in an old storybook. The monochromatic images contribute to the ethereal nature of the subject matter, with the results resembling a waking dream. In one scene, Belle traverses one hallway in slow motion, as if in a somnambulistic trance. In another part of the castle, she glides through a corridor as though she were floating on air. The sets incorporate surreal touches, including candelabras held up by disembodied arms jutting from the walls, food and drink that serves itself, and ghostly caryatids, whose eyes follow Belle’s every movement. Cocteau also employed old-fashioned trick photography (dating back to the films of Georges Méliès) to depict the impossible, as when Belle’s tears become diamonds. With its emphasis on visuals and pantomime, Beauty and the Beast could just as well be a silent film. In many cases, the dialogue (which Cocteau confided was something he didn’t enjoy writing) is almost incidental.
Contrary to what we’re led to believe, it’s not the beast who’s ugly. Rather, it’s others’ distorted perceptions of him, fueled by avarice, envy and ignorance. It takes Belle’s patience and compassion to see the beauty inside (although truth be told, I never thought he looked ugly in the first place. His supposedly dreadful appearance is something we have to accept on faith alone). Similar to the roses the Beast cherishes, the film is a respite from the awful realities of the world. It’s an exquisite work, told with finesse, humor, and above all, the heart of a child. Cocteau understands the conceits of the fairy tale, working within its confines, which requires the complicity of the audience. The more one tries to peek behind the curtains to explain away the machinations of the film or reveal the magic, the further they stray from the mark. Beauty and the Beast is a simple story, wonderfully told, by a master at the top of his craft. It’s a fitting film, if ever there was, to combat the cynicism of an adult in these complex times.
Sources for this article: Diary of a Film by Jean Cocteau; Criterion DVD commentary by Arthur Knight