BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
(La Belle et la Bête)
Beauty and the Beast was made immediately following World War II after producer Andre Paulve decided that audiences needed something escapist to forget the horrors of the Occupation. One comes to Beauty and the Beast after having seen both Cocteaus Orpheus (1950) and The Testament of Orpheus (1960). In these, Cocteau delivers moments of great visual poetry but these films also have a tendency to get drowned out by familiar French pseudo-intellectual posturing. Seeing Beauty and the Beast, the least that one expected to find was what is perhaps the greatest of all fantasy films. Given a straightforward storyline, Cocteau forgets about intellectual pseudo-profundities and simply allows visual poetry alone to carry the film. Unfettered by anything else, he creates perhaps the most extraordinary evocation of the fairy-tale ever put on film the only rival one can ever think of is arguably Ridley Scotts much-maligned Legend (1985).
Of all of Jean Cocteaus films, Beauty and the Beast is one that works the best. Cocteau evokes a pure cinematic magic. The fathers entrance into the castle is a scene of extraordinarily magical power hands lighting up candelabra to highlight the way for him, a whole hall of such candelabras held by living hands, faces in the marble of the fireplace that puff smoke, more hands pointing the way to the dinnertable and pouring wine for him. Cocteau conjures magic with the simplest of effects, in some cases merely conducting stop-action camera substitutions the Beast materialising necklaces of pearls out of thin air, tears that turn into diamonds, teleportation gloves. It is all photographed amid the most simple yet elegantly stylised of backgrounds. (The limitedness of the sets do show through at times what Cocteau could have done with colour and the budget of a Hollywood epic!)
Jean Marais (who was Jean Cocteaus homosexual lover for a number of years) gives a wonderfully pained and tortured performance as the Beast. Cocteau is not afraid to show the animalistic side of the Beast and we are treated to a series of striking tableaux where the romance is undercut by scenes of the Beast on all fours lapping water from a lake, being tempted by a deer while he is conducting a conversation with Beauty and the shock image of him turning up at her door covered in blood. The makeup job done on the Beast is a far more convincing and fearsome than the makeup conducted for Lon Chaney Jrs The Wolf Man (1941) only five years earlier. Cocteau also takes the unusual step of having Jean Marais play both the Beast and the handsome hunter who sees himself as Beautys saviour, allowing the two to change places at the end. Why who knows? On the other hand, Josette Day has a certain regality as Beauty, although seems a little too vain and aloof, enough to make one wonder what the Beasts attentions were all about.
Perhaps the only point that Jean Cocteau ever loses the magic is the apparent need upon his part to self-consciously show that he is creating make-believe. The film opens with a written dedication from Cocteau: Children believe in stories they are told. They have complete faith. They believe a plucked rose may bring tragic consequences to a family. They believe in the smoking hands of a man-beast who kills in the shame he feels before the maiden who is his guest. They believe in countless other artless things. It is a little of that artlessness that I ask of you. So that the omens may smile upon all, let me pronounce that magic word, that veritable Open Sesame: Once Upon a Time. (The opening also sees the credits being written on a blackboard by various hands and a clapperboard that clacks before the film opens). It is this patient, almost overly polite, asking of our permission to suspend our disbelief for him that reveals an uncertainty upon Cocteaus part about being able to free to be pure fantasy contrarily all this does is bring us out of the fantasy and reminds us too much of the artifice of what we are seeing. This aside, Beauty and the Beast is an extraordinary fantasy.
Other versions of Beauty and the Beast include: several lost silent versions made variously in 1899, 1903, 1905, 1908, 1912, 1913 and 1922; the stodgy Technicolor adaptation Beauty and the Beast (1961) starring Mark Damon and Joyce Taylor; Beauty and the Beast (1976), a tv movie adaptation starring George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere; a Czech adaptation Beauty and the Beast (1979); a 1984 episode of Shelley Duvals Faerie Tale Theater starring Klaus Kinski and Susan Sarandon and directed by Roger Vadim; the Cannon Movie Tales adaptation Beauty and the Beast (1987) with John Savage and Rebecca De Mornay; Beauty and the Beast (1991), the Disney animated adaptation; Beauty (2004) starring Martin Clunes and Sienna Guillory, a modernised retelling; Beauty and the Beast (2009) starring Estella Warren, which turned the fairytale into a cheap fantasy adventure; Beastly (2011) starring Alex Pettyfer and Vanessa Hudgens, which transplanted the fairytale into a modern high school setting; the tv movie Beauty and the Beast (2012) starring Ruith Bradley; Christophe Gans exquisitely dreamy Beauty and the Beast (2014) with Lea Seydoux and Vincent Cassel; and Beauty and the Beast (2017). the live-action remake of the Disney film starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens. Beauty and the Beast (1987-90) was a fantastical contemporary urban tv series loosely based on the fairy-tale, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton, and was later remade as Beauty and the Beast (2012-6) starring Kristin Kreuk and Jay Ryan. An elaborate pastiche of scenes from Beauty and the Beast was also created in the surreal AIDS drama Angels in America (tv mini-series, 2003), while the wall of arms scene has been borrowed in other films such as Jack the Giant Killer (1962) and was parodied in The League of Gentlemens Apocalypse (2005).
Original trailer with introduction by Jean Cocteau here:-
Modern trailer here:-