We know that Criterion don't muck about and that, pretty much, any title they release has been put through the most thorough and respectful restoration that we could hope for. And Beauty and the Beast is certainly no exception. The accompanying booklet, as usual, details the processes that have been utilised to bring the film to disc with as much care and attention as could be mustered without resorting to the digital tomfoolery that could rob it of its film-like texture and visual patina.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect and comes with an AVC encode. It has been restored by Luxembourg's Centre national de l'audiovisuel in association with CLT-UFA International. Damage is kept to a bare minimum. There is some flickering in the contrast, and some patches of the frame can appear faded on occasion. You will still some lines populating the image, sometimes fainter, sometimes more noticeable – but never a concern unless you are really looking for them.
Grain is vital and integral to the image. It bears no evidence of having been struck by any overt DNR, and it can, at times, fluctuate from scene to scene, though never to any detrimental degree of distraction. It retains that cinematic vigour from beginning to end.
Highlights refrain from blooming, and the image is frequently bathed with spectral back-lighting. This, as well as other effects, can result in a diffused look that heightens the whites and softens the overall image. Contrast, however, is fine in large part. Light and dark, and the distinction between them, is handled well, although it has to be said that the black levels really could have done with being a touch deeper. As they stand, they are fine … just a little too permeated with grey to really provide much tangible depth to the sets and the more fantastical of frames. Lots of shots of Belle moving, in dreamy languid fashion, down bizarre corridors of either human candelabras or billowing white drapes look astonishingly eerie and beautiful, though I feel they would have looked better again had the darker elements of the frame been less compromised. Of course, this is merely a personal viewpoint, as I have no doubts whatsoever that Criterion have done the very best that they can.
Whilst there is revelations to be found with regards to detail – the foliage, the embroidery, the object d'art and enchanted accoutrements that stipple the castle – by far the greatest asset of the film that this transfer is able to enhance is the makeup of the Beast, and the eyes of both Marais and Day. You can see striations in the fur, remarkable levels of texture in the intricate design in fact, and his eyes literally burn out from the screen. During one great shot, even from the middle distance, we can clearly see that the Beast has been crying, the moistness around the eyes very apparent and all very convincing.
Even given the condition of the print and the passage of the years, this earns itself a radiant 8 out of 10.
We have the operacised interpretation of the film from Philip Glass, one of three that the composer has produced for the work of Cocteau. This runs alongside the film and is extremely well synchronised with the action. The Auric score is turned off and the film is then endorsed with a live opera performance that has has its vocals (with Janice Felty as Belle and Gregory Purnhagen as the Beast) timed with the movements of the actors' lips. Right, now whilst I fully appreciate the effort and devotion that has gone into this audacious production, I cannot say that I actually enjoy it. I've always found the music and style of Glass somehow dislocated from the film in question – his approach to Tod Browning's Dracula, for instance – quite an alienating experience. And this is no exception. I just don't like it. However, the quality of the audio mix, which is presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1 no less, is sublime, with absolute clarity to the instrumentation and vocals, and lots of power afforded the dynamics.
For me, personally, the original orchestral score from Georges Auric is, by far, the best option and one that suits the film like the Beast's magical glove. So it is this PCM 1.0 track that I tend to stick with.
Whilst this original track has been cleaned-up, it cannot help but sound rather primitive. Voices have plenty of individual variety – the sound of the Beast's purring brogue is terrific – but they are flattened, nevertheless, and hardly pronounce themselves with any clarity or depth. The action is sparse, and the tracks rendering of it is perfunctory at best. The storm sounds quite nice, although understandably limited in scope, but the breaking of an ornate glass skylight actually has some degree of convincing clarity and sharpness to it.
There is some slight background hiss, but this is easily swept beneath the embracing blanket of George Auric's swooning score, which although hardly all-encompassing and immersive, has that vintage warmth and detail that still makes the hair on the back of the neck stand up.
All things considered, I doubt that we could have expected a better presentation than this.
This is a good selection from Criterion.
We get two great Commentary Tracks that both take a very serious and scholarly approach to this rich fantasy. The first is from Arthur Knight, culled from the Laserdisc, whilst the second, which hails from the BFI DVD, comes from one of my film-boffin heroes, the always awesome Sir Christopher Frayling. His soft, yet overwhelmingly pleasant and vastly informative spiel has graced a large number of discs, most notably the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, a filmmaker for whom he actually acted as biographer. Here, his passion and knowledge of Cocteau's film and of the culture of both the literature it is based upon and the state of French Cinema at the time is second-to-none. Both tracks are well worth your time.
An excellent 1995 documentary called Screening at the Majestic runs for 26 minutes and returns us to the location of the 1946 shoot, with DOP Henri Alekan, actor Jean Marais and actress Mila Parely as they reminisce about working for Jean Cocteau and crafting such a classic fantasy. With some narration and lots of stills from the set, this subtitled chronicle is a delight. Intercut with relevant clips from the film, we see how little the gorgeous farm and château in rural France has altered over the fifty-one years that have passed between making the movie and filming this feature. We hear about the difficulties that they with planes, Superfortresses, passing overheard and with capturing the right light.The reference to the Majestic refers to the screening suite in which Cocteau and crew watched the film's early rushes.
The cinematography is discussed further in An Interview with Henri Alekan, in which he talks about how certain techniques were brought about and we shown examples of how these looked in the finished film.
A nice idea is the little (6 ½ mins) talk with makeup artist Hagop Arakelian in a 1964 featurette called Screen Professionals: Face to Face as he actually works on an actress, but it only very briefly touches upon his outstanding contribution to Beauty and the Beast. This would have been a great chance to expanded the theme with recognition from today's makeup men, most notably Rick Baker and Rob Bottin (if he can be found these days), who have both been immensely influenced by his beast-man work, but we are left with his own enigmatic overview.
We get to see just how exacting and effective the cleaning-up of the film has been in a 4 ½ minute Discussion of the film's 1995 Restoration, which offers up some nice before-and-after shots.
There is the film's Original Theatrical Trailer as well as one for its 1995 Reissue. Plus we get a very generous Stills Gallery, taking in behind-the-scenes, portraits and images from the film, itself.
A terrific 33-page, illustrated booklet comes with an essay from Geoffrey O'Brien, an explanatory note from Cocteau about the film, an excerpt from Cocteau: A Biography (1970) by Francis Steegmuller that refers to the making of the film, and a word from Philip Glass on His Opera and his thoughts on the original production and score.
Technically and atmospherically, Jean Cocteau's ethereal Beauty and the Beast is milestone in fantasy cinema. Astoundingly, despite its inherent theatricality, it has lost none of its magic or emotional power. Both the 80's TV series and the gorgeous Disney animated version borrowed liberally from it, but in many ways, neither ever comes close to achieving the spell that this lustrous 1946 adaptation of the classic fairytale by 18th Century writer Madame Leprince du Beaumont manages to conjure. I doubt very much that the Cinema has actually produced as mesmerising or as haunting a gothic tale of enchantment as this.
Both Jean Marais and Josette Day are excellent in the title roles, though it is Marais who completely steals the show with his supreme portrayal of the noble Beast, delivering all the tragedy and majesty of a ferocious, yet dignified man labouring under the guilt of a ravaging curse. A folk-tale, a werewolf allegory, a dark and brooding romance as weighty and as emotional as anything by Bronte, Beauty and the Beast takes you by the hand and escorts off the beaten track and into the forever twilight hinterland of a bewitched realm of dream and pure imagination. The imagery and the visual panache has been far-reaching, influencing a great number of genre classics over the decades since Jean Cocteau first struggled to get his shots between flybys of American Superfortresses.
With typical class and quality assured, Criterion bring this spectral masterpiece to Blu-ray with a fantastic transfer that reveals plenty of wonderful nuances in the amazing set design and monstrous makeup. The audio comes with the added bonus of supplying the opera from Philip Glass that can be selected as an alternate track, although I would heartily recommend the original soundtrack, with the splendid score from Georges Auric, over this re-imagining any day of the week. Criterion also offer up a great array of supplements. We have two highly informative chat-tracks, one of which comes from the commentary-king, himself, Sir Chris Frayling, and the featurettes all provide some exquisite detail on what went into the production of this time-halting and immortal classic.
Personally, I cannot recommend this release enough. Fans of fantasy and fans of Cinema, as an evolving and stimulating medium, owe it to themselves to have this genuine work of art in their collection.
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