La Belle et la Bête (1946)

La Belle et la Bête (1946) – Il était une fois… So fairy tales have become vogue once again at the multiplex. Not just for the young ones, but apparently for the still-young-but-desperate-to-be-more-grown-up-not-really-comprehending-all-that-that-entails ones too. We’ve been treated to new angst-ridden versions of Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood that borrow directors or stars from the Twilight series. These films seem to forget the most important ingredient to a fairy tale: magic. Sure movies like Snow White and the Huntsman or Red Riding Hood have magic as a plot device, but there’s no sense of magic to the movies themselves. Going back through the decades we see examples of fairy tales done right. Many of the classic Walt Disney films, sure, but there are others who got it. French poet/novelist/designer/playwright/artist/filmmaker Jean Cocteau decided to take a stab at one of his country’s most famous fables, Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast. A written prologue asks the viewer to embrace the suspension of disbelief that ruled their imaginations as children as he speaks the “open, Sesame” of the mind: “Once upon a time…”

Belle (Josette Day) is a woman whose father (Marcel André) has gone broke. This doesn’t stop her ghastly sisters Félicie (Mila Parély) and Adélaïde (Nane Germon) from trying to live as sophisticated ladies. Belle is content to look after her father and reject the advances of Avenant (Jean Marais), a friend of her brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair). One day her father goes on the road to try to fix the family’s fortunes but his plan fails and as he returns he seeks refuge from the elements in a strange enchanted castle. Invisible servants and mysterious arms protruding from the walls wait upon him, but he pushes his luck too far when he takes a rose from the garden for Belle. A monstrous Beast (also Marais) appears and tells him for taking the rose his life is forfeit, unless one of his daughters would pay the price in his stead. Belle selflessly volunteers to be the Beast’s victim, but she ends up more as the guest of the Beast, who is more kind-hearted than his savage visage would indicate. She grows closer to him and begins to accept her new life with him, but her sisters and Avenant have other ideas.

I saw the Disney film when I was seven, so that version will probably be my main idea of Beauty and the Beast for all time, but I was very absorbed by this film. Cocteau brings an otherworldly feel to the Beast’s castle. Slow motion in some scenes, special effects, living statues, and the whispers of the furniture create an eerie atmosphere that is the film’s chief triumph. Cocteau has said that he views the film as a poem about the artistic process: the artist is the Beast, forever trying to please the mercurial beauty. The film can seem a bit… well, what a cynical person might call “hokey” at times, but overall I found it easy to get swept away in the film’s magic. I love the make-up of the Beast. It reminded me somewhat of Lon Chaney Jr.’s makeup as the Wolf Man. A lot of the special effects are quite innovative for the 1940s. The Criterion Collection disc has a bonus feature of an alternate audio track of an opera by Phillip Glass synced up to the movie. (I only watched part of that.) While intriguing at times, I felt it mostly trampled the mood of the original film much like Glass’s similar score for Dracula. Cocteau’s film is best watched as is: a beautiful and slightly haunting dream telling a familiar story remembered from youth…

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