Disney’s live adaptation of its animated musical Beauty and the Beast may be a box-office success, but its artistry pales when compared with a truly enchanting cinematic fairytale – Jean Cocteau’s 1946 realisation of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s La Belle et la Bête.
Instead of the brutish, ill-mannered bordering on violent Beast of Disney, we have a dignified and courteous gentleman, who has the misfortune to have been cursed by spirits.In Cocteau’s film, rather than technically dexterous computer-animated singing and dancing crockery, we have a castle that is itself alive – disembodied hands hold candelabras and pour wine, statues move and glance, beds make and unmake themselves, and doors open and close of their own volition.
Even the loutish “other” suitor is different, being a close family friend for whom Belle has feelings.
The movie opens in a cluttered classroom. At the blackboard stands Jean Cocteau, the film’s writer and director, at this stage well established as a French intellectual and artist, a poet and playwright of some renown, and a collaborator of genius having already worked with the likes of Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky. He writes on the board the name of the film and those of the actors – with those same actors then erasing their names for the next to be written up, at the same time erasing their real selves in favour of their fictional ones.
Cocteau goes on to write a plea to the audience – that they be like children and believe in the story.
In this telling of the tale, Belle (Josette Day) has two uppity, grasping sisters, Adelaide (Nane Germon) and Felicity (Mila Parély) and a good-natured but wastrel brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair). Their father (Marcel André) was a successful merchant until his ships were lost at sea, and with them his fortune, a fact that outrages Belle’s sisters.
Ludovic, on the other hand, cares little, as long as he can go carousing with his friend Avenant (Jean Marais), a handsome and wilful, short-tempered rogue who is in love with Belle. Belle rejects Avenant’s forceful advances – although we later learn that she does love him – as she “must” look after her father.
One day the merchant gets news that one of his ships has made it back, but when he goes to collect his profits, he finds they have already been taken to pay his debts. Downcast, he gets lost in the woods on his way home. Luckily he finds himself in a castle where he eats, drinks and rests, waited on by invisible servants. As he goes to leave, he picks a rose, and the Beast (Jean Marais) appears, enraged that his hospitality has been repaid with theft. He makes the merchant swear to return in three days, or else send one of his daughters in his place.
On returning home the merchant tells his family and Avenant everything. Belle immediately volunteers to go in his place, and she makes her way to the castle, where she discovers that rather than a prisoner, she has been made mistress of the dreamlike palace and all it contains.
The Beast, despite his monstrous appearance and appetites – he hunts like an animal – is a perfect gentleman who treats Belle as if she were a princess. He is clearly smitten with her, and tortured by his inability to do anything about it. Belle, in turn, is both repulsed by, and attracted to, the Beast. Their relationship is chaste and courtly, but shot through with a decided sensuality.
This sensuality suffuses the film, from Henri Alekan’s cinematography – inspired by the paintings of Jan Vermeer and the etchings of Gustave Doré, to the score by composer Georges Auric and the sumptuous costuming by Parisian designers Antonio Castillo and Marcel Escoffier. Cocteau makes good use of trick photography and conjuring tricks to bring the magic to life in a way that is still entrancing. Much like his 1950 Orpheus, which re-tells the classical Greek myth in post-war Paris, Cocteau grounds his cinematic poetry in reality, the better to bring out its magic.
Moreover, by making the movie after the beastliness of World War II and French collaboration, the movie cannot but be seen as commenting upon it, pleading for civility despite what has occurred.
The dreamlike logic that has both the Beast and the “other” suitor played by the same actor, lends itself to all manner of symbolic analyses, but it would be a mistake to understand the film solely in those terms. As Cocteau puts it, it should be watched with childlike innocence, for it is, after all, a fairytale, and a beautifully realised one at that.