Sunday, July 18, 2010
To put it simply, director Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version of Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête) is sheer genius. The film is a masterpiece of celluloid and no other fairy tale put to film is as artistically stunning (The Wizard of Oz may be an exception, but Cocteau’s French chef d'oeuvre has an ethereal quality that even Oz can’t touch). It is exquisite in every detail, visually sumptuous with an equally impressive and lavish musical score by composer Georges Auric. Cocteau, a highly intelligent and creative individual, who cavorted with the likes of Pablo Picasso and Edith Piaf, pulled out all the stops to actualize the famed fairy tale. His dreamlike classic would inspire the Walt Disney animated version of the same name 45 years later.
The story revolves around the characters of Belle, a beautiful, kind and humble French girl and The Beast, a magical, physically hideous creature. When Belle’s father gets lost in the forest while on a journey, he happens upon an other worldly like estate, a chateau of mystical essence. After partaking of the hospitality of an invisible host, the man wakes the next morning to wander the grounds looking for his horse and continue homeward. In the garden of the estate, he finds a magnificent rose and plucks said flower for his daughter. This gesture of affection awakens the rage of his host, now making his presence known as the Beast. For this infraction, the Beast commands that he shall have to pay with his life, unless one of his daughters come in his stead. Of his four children, the old man has a shiftless, irresponsible son named Ludevic and two vain and abrasive daughters, Felicie and Adelaide. His third daughter is the lovely and selfless Belle, for whom he picked the rose. The last of the characters in Cocteau’s version is the handsome but erratic Avenant, who is in love with Belle.
When the father arrives back home, fatigued and ill, he tells his tale to his amazed family. Belle, wishing to save her father from any potential harm, sneaks out and rides the magic horse which was provided by the Beast, as the means for return to his world. Once she has reached her strange destination, Belle is both frightened and astonished at the fantastical residence. When she meets the beast face to face, she is horrified by his countenance. The Beast on the other hand is enchanted by Belle’s beauty and asks her to marry him. Initially repelled by the offer, as her time in the Beast’s company progresses, she befriends him and persuades him to allow her to return to her father, who she discovers is deathly ill. The Beast reluctantly agrees, on the terms that his beloved return within a week, on her honor. He informs her that should she fail to come back, he will die of grief.
As both the film's director and writer, Cocteau’s vision is brought vividly to life onscreen long before high tech special effects were even considered in film making. The gallery of living candelabras, Belle’s diamond tears, her enchanted mirror and the fireplace mantle carved with faces whose eyes watch every movement around them are just a few of the fascinating examples of the director’s creativity come to life. His use of quick cutting between scenes, abruptly ending one scene and immediate entrance into the next, as opposed to a slow fade out, enhances the surreal effect of the picture. As an American watching the film, the French language, fluid and alien to me except for a few scattered words, also lends to the hypnotic production. Famed French designer Christian Bérard, was in charge of production design and acclaimed cinematographer Henri Alekan the gorgeous black and white photography.
As both the Beast and Avenant, French matinee idol Jean Marais does a wonderful job projecting the pathos of the Beast, as well as the pompous virility of Avenant. Marais met director Jean Cocteau in 1937. The two became lovers and Marais, Cocteau’s protegee. The director guided the young actor to become one of France’s most popular stars in the 1940’s and 50’s, with their best collaborations, being this film, as well as Orpheus (1949). French actress Josette Day is luminous as Belle. Each of her shots accentuate her beauty and elegance on film and she displays the grace of a ballet dancer, whether in her scenes at the family’s provincial homestead or the Beast’s palace. Unfortunately for the French movie industry, Day retired from films only 4 years after La Belle et la Bête at the age of 36. As for the supporting cast, mention must be made for the performances of Mila Parély and Nane Germon as Belle’s viperous and hateful sisters. These two nasty wenches could give Cinderella’s step siblings a major run for their money.
Beauty and the Beast is a masterwork indeed. But be warned, there is no Ma and Pa Kettle Go to the Fair here. It is a work of supremely skilled artistry with both style and substance, and excellence from all involved. For a foreign film novice, it’s a perfect foray into the genre and a delight to all who make the leap.
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Here are some recommendations regarding the article above:
Beauty and the Beast ~ The Criterion Collection (DVD)
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