“Belle, you mustn't look into my eyes. You needn't fear. You will never see me … except each evening at seven, when you will dine … and I will come to the Great Hall. And never look into my eyes.”
Criterion bring one of the best ever fantasies of the silver screen to blu-ray with the magical, charming and haunting tale of Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bete) that Jean Cocteau made in 1946.
With only his second feature film, the celebrated writer/director took the ailing post-war industry of French Cinema and provided it with one of its most luminous and delightful treasures. Taking the original fairytale by Madame Leprince de Beaumont and both simplifying and elaborating upon it, he supplied rich period veneer, a sumptuous level of hitherto undreamed-of fantasy and imagination, and an achingly beautiful tale of dark romance that, quite honestly, has rarely been equalled in terms of mood and invention.
Bullied into servitude by her domineering sisters Felicie (Mila Parely) and Adelaide (Nane Germon), the hardworking and devoted Belle (Josette Day) inadvertently courts the romantic advances of the impetuous, strong-willed yet empty local wide-boy, Avenant (Jean Marais). He proposes to her, but she spurns him, knowing in her heart that he is not the one for her. The two ever-bitching siblings cannot believe that such a strapping beau would find anything desirable about her and continue to make her life miserable. In the meanwhile, her merchant father (Marcel Andre) is struggling with mounting debts from an ailing business. When he receives news that one his ships has finally returned with the possibility of furnishing him with the means to settle his accounts, he happily rides off to town with high talk of bringing back gifts aplenty … though all that Belle asks for is a single rose.
With more bad news awaiting the exasperated merchant, he has no option but to return home empty-handed. And then a storm whips up around him to further compound his torment. It never rains, eh? Finding shelter in an enchanted castle, he is wined and dined by a mysterious host that he doesn't actually see – the very furnishings, themselves, seem to wait upon him – and after resting until the storm passes he wanders in the grounds, hoping to meet his elusive benefactor. But only when he plucks a single red rose from the garden does his host, the Beast, appear. Enraged by this theft, the Beast (also played by Jean Marais, in jaw-droppingly elaborate makeup) offers the merchant a choice – to stay and die, or to swap places with one of his daughters, who must come to the castle to suffer the same fate.
Sent packing on the Beast's magical horse, Magnificent, the merchant returns home to tell his tale of woe. Even though he refuses his daughters to go in his place – the two harridans hardly offering themselves – Belle takes it upon herself to save her father from such a terrible fate … and, secretively, she urges Magnificent to carry her to the castle … and the Beast. Once there, she encounters the bewitched lord and discovers that he is much more than just a monster. He is noble and dignified. He is kind. And fate conspires to begin in them a burgeoning romance. But, as ever, the path of true love is strewn with many obstacles, and both Beauty and the Beast will come to learn of sacrifice, and redemption.
The classic fairytale. Written and directed by Cocteau, but shot through with a flair and an expertise that embraced all that was cinematically possible back in 1946, Beauty and the Beast is a great many things and an unbridled masterpiece of undaunted fantasy. If The Wizard Of Oz was Hollywood's live-action pinnacle of boundless whimsy, then Cocteau's languid exploration of morality, of desire and of what it means to be human, was Europe's captivating reply … and it was all the more impressive because it was made straight after the worst excesses of Man's most bestial side. Considering the shattered cultural psyche of France at this time, I am truly in awe that such a huge statement could be made in so fragile and so lyrical a fashion.
Already, you can see why the film has endured in the hearts and minds of critics and audiences alike for almost seventy years without letting slip any of its original passion or magic.
It's true that Josette Day does not convince as the put-upon maiden on the receiving end of her sisters' constant sniping and humiliations – she is simply much too poised, too noble and elegantly self-aware for this to wash – and, likewise, her dreamlike fluttering through the Beast's castle is so incredibly well staged and physically decorative that we never really have any concerns for her safety. But even if Day is incredibly well-assured and dramatically postured this does not detract for one second from the sense of reverie-like awakening that the actress is able to radiate. And radiate is something that Day achieves with almost angelic ease and grace. She isn't conventionally beautiful, at least not in the way that studios would exploit, yet this does not harm how well she imbues Belle with that quintessential fairytale princess quality of innocent allure and semi-dangerous curiosity. We cannot ignore the fact that she willingly trades places with her father and sets off to confront what a fate that could well entail being devoured. Nor does she attempt to escape from the Beast, the unflagging devotion to duty she has exhibited right from the start, at the beck and call of her ogrish sisters, only tested the once when she initially faints at the sight of the master of the house. Otherwise, Day plays Belle precisely in-accordance with the damsel-in-a-fable rulebook.
Or does she?
Of the original slew of dramatised fairytales, live or animated, Day is perhaps the most sly at portraying the innocent abroad. Looks and glances, rebukes and innuendo herald her performance as quite forward-thinking and less reserved than you might think. A lot of inner-thought is conveyed through the eyes, and at several junctures, she allows indication of will and of desire that her actual actions do not permit within the frame. More and more, you come to understand why Day was perfect for this interpretation. Her ever-soft and supplicating gestures towards the cowardly, vicious-tongued and treacherous pair have a knowing inflection that, when you watch closely, seems to suggest that she knows she will win in the end. And her mock refinement in the company of the Beast also reveals that she is in command of her destiny a lot more than she may seem to let on. But the truest moment comes when she gazes upon the finally transformed Beast, and she can hardly contain her physical glee at what pleasures lie in store. The chiselled Jean Marais also plays the reprieved Prince Ardent at the end of this passion-play, and Day's eyes literally light up at the prospect of taking their romance to another level.
And if we are going to talk about performances of the eyes, then we must come to one of the best-ever evocations of heart and soul, rage and guilt that Fantasy Cinema has ever offered us. Jean Marais' portrayal of the Beast is simply achingly magnificent. Like with Lon Chaney's Phantom (as I discussed at-length in a previous review for that classic of the Silent Cinema) he has to emote from behind acres of painful makeup (five hours of application, no less), and to use gestures and movements to add pathos and weight to his emotions. But those eyes, which Cocteau and DOP Henri Alekan know are the secret to the story's success, are given the lion's share (literally, as it turns out) of the frame. They glow not only with the inspired lighting that the filmmakers are able to bring to bear, but with the inner passion of an actor who was so dedicated to the role that he would genuinely lap the water from the studio's run-off pipe that had been diverted into the spectral pool on the set. Whenever Marais' eyes are illuminated, they cut through the screen, traversing the decades since the character stood before the camera to speak of fathomless pity, guilt and love. It is an incredible effect that defies the metaphysical barrier.
Cocteau knows he has us in the grip of his hand.
One of my favourite scenes in the entire genre can be found in this film. It comes when Belle, hidden in the shadows behind a statue, observes the Beast returning from a hunt, his great paws smoking with the crime of having taken a life, and the Beast, consumed with incomprehensible guilt, simply staring at them in horror and regret. Without any words spoken, and with only a surrealist sense of passive observation from the exquisite photography, there is so much power conveyed by this that the sequence transcends both story and character to become a serious contemplation upon the very nature of existence, not just animal versus humanity, but the core beauty and revulsion of simply being alive. Considering that this was made just after the planet-cursing horrors of World War II and in a country that had suffered so much under the occupation of the Nazis, this is an image and a symbol that speaks far louder and harsher than any scripted words could ever hope to emulate. It is a defining moment in Cinema – a waking dream that taps a raw nerve within each and every one of us. The film, itself, seeks to elope with us to a better place, a place that has escaped the harsher realities of what we see around us in our daily lives … but Cocteau knows that to endorse such out-of-reach possibilities, you have to, first, acknowledge the pain and suffering that you wish to leave behind.
The makeup designed for the Beast is among the greatest ever seen on screen. Beast-men were not exactly a new species to the genre. We'd had the gallery of Dr. Moreau's grotesques inhabitingThe Island of Lost Souls, there had been numerous men in ape-costumes menacing wannabe scream-queens in the furry wake of King Kong, and the luminous Simone Simon became dangerously feline in the classic 1942 Val Lewton chiller, Cat People. But the Beast's major antecedent is, of course, the werewolf of folklore, legend and cinematic re-mythologising. Like The Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood, Madame de Beaumont's original story was very much in-keeping with the European flavour of gypsy-drenched lupine demonising. No matter how the story plays out or how you choose to interpret it, it is basically a werewolf tale dressed romantically and deceptively in sheep's clothing. You venture out into the woods and wolf will get you, especially if that wolf walks like a man. But, as with The Wolf Man, this will pierce the nightmare to locate the victim within. Thus, it is incredible to see how Hagop Arakelian reworked and vastly improved upon the classic lycanthropic makeup designs that Universal's celebrated Jack P. Pierce created for Stuart Walker's Werewolf Of London (which featured a low-key look demanded by actor Henry Hull, but very scary, just the same, and has been horribly underrated) and, of course, 1941's The Wolf Man for George Waggner (the altogether too fluffy mop-top and brown snout that became a signature look for Lon Chaney Jnr.), and brought to life a creature that was, at once, even more ferocious and brooding, and yet starkly sympathetic and dignified. And totally believable. The look of the Beast is one of the greatest images that the genre has been able to manifest, as full of realism and pathos as Karloff's Monster, as rife with finite detail as the Gill-Man from The Creature From The Black Lagoon but infinitely richer with the essence of life and emotion. The fact that he resembles a cat, or a lion (perhaps influenced by Lewton), more than the stereotypical wolf, is another peculiar resonance that lends a charm to Marais' movements and self-conscious attitude. We see his little ears wiggle as the Beast becomes aware of potential prey in the woods, his eyes darting in its direction, clearly instinct-ruled no matter how much he struggles to maintain humanity and reason, yet always blighted by such skills. A wolf would have been more conventional and generic, perhaps, and the little tiger-stripes that decorate his fur certainly add a sense of highly defined individuality.
But it is those eyes that seal the deal! Marais has such soulful, bright, appealing eyes that no amount furry surround can mask the heartbroken sincerity that pools within them. They literally shine out from the mask with a penetrating gaze that tells you the character has seen far too much, and suffered greatly, yet still desires to discover warmth, love and beauty. The cat is certainly more often considered as being intelligent and enriched by its own sense of personality and, as a consequence, less bestial than its canine and lupine brethren. Cocteau, Marais and Arakelian seem intent on marrying this psychological profile on to their Beast whilst still maintaining his feral attributes, perhaps providing the character with yet another internal struggle. It is also worth mentioning that Simone Simon's haunted aggressor in Cat People only turns dangerous when the act of true love being consummated threatens to break the spell of her humanity. With the Beast, it is clearly the reverse. Thus, with all this attention lavished upon Marais, the camera literally adoring him in his variety of incarnations, it should come as no surprise that he was, in fact, Cocteau's long-time lover, despite going through a doomed marriage to his co-star of Parely. This flagrant infatuation, however, never cloys the narrative, despite Marais' leonine head and imposing form clearly being fawned-over by the director.
His costume is, again, a work of art. His fine velvet robe is festooned with stars and moon, a romantic Romany chart of divination and occult prescience, its ruffles vaguely reminiscent of a mane to suit his animalistic pride. Indeed, all of the costumes, created by Marcel Escoffier, Antonio Castillo and Christian Berard, much like the artistic design of the film as a whole, have the luxurious appeal of the paintings and sculptures of Gustave Dore. Their regality, detail and sumptuousness may not look “lived-in” but they occupy a sense of acute and heightened desirability, all the same.
Whilst critics tend to cite his performance as Avanant as being wooden – which I don't think is fair – they all agree that his command of the tortured Beast is beyond reproach. But we need to redress this. Firstly, Avanant is supposed to be stilted and fairly one-dimensional. We know that he loves Belle, but his own wayward and often delinquent ways have too much of a hold over him to make him the ideal suitor for her heart. Thus, Marais' performance here is brusque and lacking in genuine warmth, but the actor still allows for an essence of rough charm to creep through. Posing about with no top on, and revealing a surprisingly buff physique, must have elicited a few feminine gasps at the time too. And let us not forget that whilst Avanant is clearly a “bit of rough”, the same man plays a character who is the very epitome of rough. If Avenant represents the beast in man, then the tragic master of the spellbound castle is surely the noble man that resides in the heart of the beast. Thus, I believe that Marais' performance as the headstrong romancer has been meticulously thought-out and delivered with a considered balance between smarmy, pig-headed arrogance and the semblance of an ill-defined sense of dignity and compassion that would, given time, turn into something far more becoming.
Inescapably, we are swallowed-up by a realm of the purest magic. The most clever and uncanny trick up Cocteau's sleeve is to keep all of the supernatural, bewitched material as simple and bereft of sensationalism as he can. He doesn't glamorise or exploit the beautiful “living” castle in the way that many filmmakers would have done. The place is completely alive, but its gentle, observational existence comes over in a delightfully casual manner. We don't get flourishes of music or the more typical “stingers”, zooms and quick cuts as the living candelabras politely illuminate the hall for a guest. A hand emanating from the lavishly furnished table calmly fills a glass of wine but doesn't elaborate beyond its civil duties. The door to Belle's room very respectfully introduces itself, but then remains reticent about all that ensues, as does the magic mirror that breathtakingly can teleport the looker to the places their heart desires.
The imagery of the living-arm candelabras was purloined for Nathan Juran's Jack The Giant Killer in 1962, and the eerie sight of such extended, but disembodied limbs was something that would also be seen in Val Lewton's asylum drama, Bedlam, as the inmates reach out from their cells to surrealistically flank the shadows of a corridor. It must have been something in the water, as both Bedlam and Beauty and the Beast were released in the same year. Indeed, you can scarcely believe that Thing in The Addams Family cult TV show wasn't hugely influenced by Cocteau's “helping hands” in Beauty and the Beast. And you've only got to glance at a kids' programme on Cbeebies or peruse the set of a pantomime to see yet more examples of highly animated fixtures and furnishings.
I find it somewhat unusual that we are not at all unsettled by the living statuary - the faces peering out from the fire-surround in the banquet hall that follow the unwary visitor around, the eyes that open in pillars and the fateful marksmanship of the statue of Diana – but there is something actually reassuring about their presence. They belong. So we have to accept them as easily as Belle and her father do.
Disney, appropriately enough, would really go to town with this aspect, giving the cups and saucers, candlesticks, clocks and wardrobes voices and distinct personalities of their own, and Ridley Scott would tentatively mimic the sense of an environment that had a life of its own for the decadent lair of Darkness in Legend, but Cocteau's existential set design was executed in such a swooning, matter-of-fact way that, like Belle, and her storm-waylaid father before her, we simply accept them as part and parcel of this mysterious, limbo-locked castle. Cocteau shows us all these enchanted things, but he does so without shouting out about them and this makes their ghostly appearances all the more esoteric and beguiling. This is not a haunted house – it is a dream-state made corporeal. Shut your eyes, Cocteau is implying, and you can revisit this locale at any time you choose.
I've always adored the mood conjured by stage-bound sets that don't really want to appear real. The foggy Universal moors and graveyards, the little rural streets and façades that doubled for Welsh villages one day, Transylvanian hamlets the next. The epic forest sets from Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves, Scott's Legend and the totally unique and absorbing variation found in The Brothers Grimm. And we shouldn't forget the wonderful old school approach that Francis Ford Coppola took with his flamboyant and overtly theatrical take on Bram Stoker's Dracula, which owed a lot to Cocteau's design ethic. Nothing represents the fairytale aesthetic and the evocation of the otherworldly more than these imaginative fabrications. For Beauty and the Beast, Cocteau fashions a wonderful little circuit through a winding woodland trail, and a cosseted twilight glen. But the most remarkable aspect of this landscape is actually the real location work … simply because he manages to make even the genuine buildings – farmhouses, stables and the grand Château de Raray that doubles for the Beast's grounds – seem spectrally artificial and all part of the same grand design of the imagination. I love this mixing-up of reality and theatricality to create something that resides somewhere in-between – no other medium can fully achieve this style of atmospheric relocation.
Cocteau changes the final denouement of Madame de Beaumont's fairytale, and I have to admit to having a few reservations about this. The original fable may well have ladled-on the moral warning a touch too thickly, but I, for one, love the notion of just-desserts being meted-out to the villains of the piece. For some reason, Cocteau opts to lessen the vengeful ire of both the Beast and Belle towards her snot-nosed sisters. His ending is certainly more liberated and liberating, if you will, literally spiriting away all our woes on a true flight of fancy, but I think I prefer to have bullies being made to suffer for their abusive ways a whole lot more emphatically than, as Cocteau does here, with merely a throwaway line. Therefore, as much as I adore this film, I can't help but feel a little short-changed by the climax, despite its determined use of paradisical symbolism.
A few gaffs can be seen – a young boy, presumably an extra, is revealed loitering in the extreme right of the frame as Belle and the Beast walk through the gardens; the mike-boom comes down into view above the heads of Avenant and Ludovic as they infiltrate the castle grounds – but even rudimentary shooting errors such as these can be utterly swept aside with the sheer technical quality and breadth of collective imagination on show, Cocteau's dreamy atmosphere of the otherworldly managing to effortlessly gloss over the small incongruences of a difficult production that was determined to break new ground in the furtherance of whisking an audience into a land of pure make-believe and visual poetry.
These, and my aforementioned misgiving regarding the climax do not, in any way, deny Beauty and the Beast from its status as a bonafide masterpiece.
Another particular delight of this film – and something that is absolutely unique and undoubtedly timeless – is that you can happily watch it without the English subtitles and totally understand what is happening. My four-year-old daughter is a huge fan of the Disney animated version – which is hardly surprising – but she also adores this film, which I found strangely humbling. Now she can't read the subtitles, and this version of the story does differ in large parts from Disney's, but she is perfectly happy to float away on the sublime visuals and the mesmerising score from Geroges Auric just the same. Now I would say that this was a profound quality that you literally only find in a film of this nature. The dialogue, itself, follows a sort of musical idiom, and the voices, especially that of Marais in his triplet of roles, contains a sort of husky magical spell that makes him sound, especially when he is speaking as the Beast, as though he is communicating a lullaby. You can imagine him having the same effect upon a basket of kittens, or pups … or even a pack of infant wolves. She was also able to get by without the sort of climatic duel that puts the bad guy in his place, somehow able, in that purely child-like fashion, to be satisfied in the meaning of simple happiness prevailing. In this way, Cocteau delivers a film that not only transcends time and social mores, but appeals to all generations without any apparent exertion.
At this point it would important to talk a bit about the hypnotic contribution of acclaimed composer Georges Auric. His score for Cocteau's lavish fantasy has all of that emotional and ethereal brilliance that soundtrack lovers understand was the eloquent hallmark of the era that many modern tunesmiths have absorbed into their creative subconsciousness. Around this time, we had the marvellously atmospheric scores of Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner for many Universal Horrors and for the Sherlock Holmes series, Roy Webb for RKO and the rousing might and splendour of Dimitri Tiomkin. But it was perhaps Bernard Herrmann, who had made an enormous impact on movies since Citizen Kane in 1941, who helped shape the sound of magic and define its drifting, sinuous mood and texture. But whereas he would prefer to explore the innate psychology that dwelt within that fabulous world, Auric found the simple glory of such splendours enough to give voice to. At around this point, with Steiner and Rozsa also providing heavyweight symphonies of devout character and mood, there is definitely a sense that the role of composer was, by the time that Auric took on Beauty and the Beast, recognised as being that of one of the most important players in the production of a film. Auric doesn't overplay the monstrousness of the story, he embellishes the mystery, the magical beauty and the haunting, wistful theme of discovery, both in spiritual terms and in the spectral vocabulary of enchantment. He does not go for the action elements of the narrative – indeed, there aren't many for him to address – but smothers the visuals in ethereal lacquer, even bringing in a soaring-voiced female choir so lilting and lustrous that they could swoon the very clouds down from the sky. By contrast, I find that Philip Glass' opera, that he composed to slide almost seamlessly over the film, lacks the same magical resonance. Auric's score is a definite thing of authentic beauty in a film that embraces the condition in all its compelling variety and danger.
Beauty and the Beast, La Belle et la Bete, just cannot be beaten in terms of atmosphere, mood and transcendental revelation. It is whimsy of the highest possible calibre, totally enraptured by its own inner radiance and totally in love with the notion of a love that can overcome and conquer adversity. There is horror, there is romance, there is a carnival-like ambience of lingering fantasia. Jean Cocteau plucked a dream from the air and wove it into celluloid.
And it is a dream that you may find you are reluctant to awaken from.
Our Review Ethos