La Belle et la Bête Review
Belle (Josette Day) takes on the work her two spoiled sisters refuse to do and not willing to marry Avenant (Jean Marais) because she believes her father (Marcel André) needs her too much. One evening, her father passes by a castle and plucks a rose to take home to Belle. He is met by the Beast (Marais again) who says that he must die for his theft. Father pleads to be allowed to return home so that he can say goodbye to his family. This is granted, but one of his daughters must be sent to die in his place. Belle travels to the castle in his place, and as soon as the Beast sees her, he falls in love...
Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) saw himself primarily as a poet, but he worked in many different media: the novel, the stage, autobiography, painting and sculpture. La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) was his second film as director, and his first feature – or his second, if you count the 55-minute Blood of a Poet (Le sang d'un poète), made in 1930, eighteen years earlier, as his first. That film had been a surrealist piece, born from Cocteau's association with the avant-garde artistic circles of the late twenties. La Belle et la Bête was a different matter: a film in which his sensibility could be expressed in a work that could play to a wider audience, with a leading actor who had become a star in French cinema at that point. Unlike some artists, Cocteau saw no contradiction between art and popular entertainment, and certainly didn't feel he was slumming it. The result is magical. In a France just coming out of World War II and the Occupation. Cocteau thought that the French could certainly bear some magic in their lives, in the hour and a half it would take them to watch this film, and he was right.
Beauty and the Beast has had its roots traced back some four thousand years, but the earliest known written version dates to the eighteenth century, by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and first published in 1740. The most often retold versions of the story are those by, in French, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756 and, in English, by Andrew Lang in 1889. Cocteau's film is specifically based on the de Beaumont version. The story has been adapted for stage, retold or referenced in prose (by Angela Carter amongst others), on television, and in the cinema. From its beginnings, the cinema has been a medium for fantasy as well as documentary reality, and the earliest known film version of the tale is a short film from 1899, and there were at least three other silent films from the story. Cocteau's film was the first sound version of the story, and the first feature-length one. Needless to say, the most widely shown film adaptations nowadays are Disney's of 1991 (which became the first animated film to be Oscar-nominated for Best Picture) and 2017 (live action).
Cocteau's film had a lot of hopes riding on it, given that the French cinema of the time was in a poor state. The production had several problems, most notably erratic electricity supply, old cameras which kept jamming, and shortages of film stock. I've just referred to it as Cocteau's film, and while it's clear he was the driving force behind it, it – like almost any film, especially one produced professionally – is a collaboration, and some of those collaborators were inspired to work at their highest level. One of them was production and costume designer Christian Bérard, of whom more when I discuss the extras on this disc below. Another was the score composer Georges Auric, who had provided the music for Cocteau's earlier film. Credited as technical advisor was René Clément who was at the time making his own feature La bataille du rail (Battle of the Rails), which went on to win at Cannes. That is the specifically realist film this one is not, though they are less removed from each other than one might think, particularly as they share the same cinematographer. Clément directed part of the film when Cocteau became ill and had to be hospitalised.
And another was the cinematographer Henri Alekan. Born in 1909. he had entered the film industry in 1930, first as a camera operator then as a cinematographer from 1936. He and Cocteau initially disagreed over the film's visual style. Alekan favoured mists and soft focus, but Cocteau thought that was too much of a cliché when dealing with fantastic subject matter and favoured a harder lighting scheme. He described the look of the film as “like old silver polished like new silver.” Alekan and Cocteau drew on classic painting for their inspiration. The lighting of the scenes at Belle's family home evokes the work of Jan Vermeer but when we reach the Beast's Castle, it's Gustave Doré. Many of the special effects were done in camera: for example, the scene with candles which light themselves was achieved by having them blown out and then reversing the film. Another famous shot, with Belle passing down a corridor filled with billowing drapes was shot with Day running and the film shot at a greater than normal speed, resulting in walking pace for Day and slow motion for the drapes. Alekan had a long and very distinguished career, including an OMNIMAX feature (J'écris dans l'espace – I Write in Space, 1989) and demonstrating his mastery of black and white for Wim Wenders in The State of Things (1982) and Wings of Desire (1987). He was still around to supervise a photochemical restoration of La Belle et la Bête in 1995; he died in 2001.
Jean Marais had become a star in French cinema, and a romantic idol, in 1943's L'éternal retour, which Cocteau had written and Jean Delannoy had directed. By then, he and Cocteau had become lovers. Marais had previously been married to Mila Parély, whom Cocteau cast as one of Belle's sisters, fully aware of their past history and rather enjoying the frissons this caused. His Beast – feline, with a deep growling voice (Cocteau dropped Marais's voice an octave or so) – is a suitably imposing creation, and no doubt a very uncomfortable one as it required five hours in the makeup chair. Marais also plays Belle's would-be suitor Avenant and, at the end of the film, a rather precious Prince. Marais and Cocteau remained a couple until the latter's death, with the title role in Orphée (1950) their best-known later collaboration. Marais's final acting role was in Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty in 1996. He died in 1998 at the age of eighty-four.
Josette Day (born Josette Dagory in 1914) began her screen career aged just five. She worked regularly during the 1930s and, other than her work for Cocteau, is best known for The Well-Digger's Daughter (La fille du puisatier, 1941), directed by her then partner (never husband, despure what was reported at the time) Marcel Pagnol. She worked again with Cocteau and Marais in Cocteau's 1948 film of his own play Les parents terribles and retired from acting in 1950 after marriage to wealthy Belgian industrialist Maurice Solvay, spending her later years as an art collector and in charitable work. She died in 1978.
La Belle et la Bête premiered at the first Cannes Film Festival in September/October 1946. (There had been plans to launch the Festival in 1939, but the War intervened.) Cocteau's film came away empty-handed, though Clément's La bataille du rail won the International Jury Prize and Best Director. It's fair to say that La Belle et la Bête has lasted better than some of the eleven films which shared the Grand Prize of the Festival that year. The film went on release in France on 29 October and from there, overseas. Its UK release was on 31 October 1947, opening at the Rialto Cinema on Coventry Street, now the site of a casino.
The BFI's Blu-ray of La Belle et la Bête is encoded for Region B only. The film was given an A certificate in 1947 and it now carries the more-or-less contemporary equivalent, PG. Barbe Bleue does not appear to have been submitted to the BBFC, but its claymation battle carnage would put it into the same category.
The Blu-ray transfer is in the correct ratio of 1.37:1. This derives from a digital restoration – 5K reduced to 4K – from the original (nitrate) camera negative and a 35mm finegrain interpositive, retaining the rounded corners of the frame. That's well and good, but there are issues with encoding here: in the darkly-lit scenes, of which there are a lot, compression artefacts start to appear and the picture is not as sharp as it should be. The more brightly-lit sequences look much better.
The soundtrack is the original mono and is clear and well-balanced. English subtitles are optionally available for the feature and also the French-language extras, apart from the commentary, which is in English. The commentary is by Professor Sir Christopher Frayling and is as well-informed as you might expect, going into the background of the original fairy tale and also the film's production and its reception and significance in the French cinema of its time, also referring to Cocteau's book on the making of the film.
Des rêves de Cocteau en numérique, l'aventure de la Belle et la Bête (Cocteau's Digital Dreams, the Adventure of Beauty and the Beast, 51:02) is a featurette made in 2013. Given that, sixty-seven years after the film's making, just about no one involved in it would still be alive, so we have talking to camera writer Dominique Marny, Professor David Gullentops (University of Brussels) and Serge Toubiana (Cinémathèque Française), taking us through the film's inception and making. Finally, they hand over to Ellen Schafer (SNC/M6 Group) who talks about the film's restoration, first the photochemical one that Henri Alekan was around to supervise in 1995 and the more recent digital one.
Christian Bérard et Jean Cocteau, deux magiciens du spectacle (23:33) is a short featurette on the working relationship between the two men. Bérard's reputation in the cinema as a production and costume designer rests on just four films: this one, Les parents terribles and L'aigle à deux têtes (The Eagle with Two Heads, 1948) for Cocteau, and L'amore (1949), a two-part film directed by Roberto Rossellini, the first part of which, Una voce umana, was based on Cocteau's play La voix humaine. Bérard began as a painter, having his first exhibition in Paris in 1925, the year he turned twenty-three. He and Cocteau moved in many of the same artistic circles, in their case openly gay ones, and the two men worked together on the stage, with Cocteau calling on his services for La Belle et la Bête. Bérard died in 1949 at the age of forty-six from a heart attack. The following year, Cocteau dedicated his film Orphée to him. Discussing this are film historian Jean-Ollé Laprune and Pierre Bergé, president of Comité Cocteau.
Next on the disc are three deleted scenes, with a Play All option. The longest is “La farce du drapier” (4:19), with both visuals and audio, and two others simply indicated as “Scene 048” (1:03) and “Scene 028” (0:38), which are audio only.
Barbe Bleue (12:58), directed by René Bertrand in 1938, is a version of another much-adapted tale of a serial wife-murderer, Perrault's Bluebeard, told by means of plasticine animation and in the very bright Gasparcolour process. Harking back some three and a half decades or more to Georges Méliès's films, it has a lot of charm. It took three years to make, which is no surprise.
Finally on the disc, there are a French trailer for La Belle et la Bête (1:56) – not an original one, as it ends with a caption announcing that it is “enfin restauré), a trailer for the BFI's cinema reissue of 2013 as part of its Gothic season (1:21) and a self-navigating stills gallery (1:39).
The BFI's booklet runs to thirty-six pages plus covers and begins with “Cocteau, La Belle et la bête and the World of Dreams”, by Dr Deborah Allison, with a prominent spoiler warning at the start. As the title suggests, Cocteau paid much store by dreams, believing them central to the artistic method, the cinema enabling the filmmaker “to allow a large number of people to dream the same dream together”. This use of dream imagery and logic is less overt in La Belle et la Bête than it is in Cocteau's other films, but it is there too, as we move from the realism of Belle's family home to the Beast's Castle, a place beyond reality. Cocteau, in his opening caption to the film, asks us to put aside our adult sensibilities and to be as accepting as a child. In “Cocteau's fairy tale for grown-ups”, Marina Warner talks about the vogue for fairy tales created by women in the eighteenth century, both the aristocratic Madame de Villeneuve and the less so Madame de Beaumont, a governess. “Once upon a time, there was Beauty and the Beast...” by George E. Turner is a reprint of a 1997 article from American Cinematographer, and is a more nuts-and-bolts account of the making of the film. The booklet also includes an extract from Cocteau's diary of the making of the film, film credits, biographies of Marais, Day and Cocteau and notes and credits on the extras.
The above review was not the only one which commented on the compression artefacts on the BFI's Blu-ray of La Belle et la Bête. However, the BFI have now re-authored and re-encoded the disc and have resolved the issue. A screen grab from a corrected checkdisc is above. The following from Ben Stoddart of the BFI advises how to receive a replacement disc:
Corrected discs of our release of La Belle et la bête are now available to customers. If you purchased a copy from the BFI Shop please send an email to email@example.com with La Belle et la bête in the subject line, providing your name and address. If you purchased a copy from any other retailer, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org again providing the necessary information. If you have proof of purchase that you can include in your email then please do so, however don’t worry if you don’t, we trust you! We will be re-working our stock in warehouse so if you purchase a copy in the future and are unsure if it’s the corrected version, please refer to the disc on-body. A V2 has been added to the end of the small print that goes around the edge of the disc. Thank you to all our customers who have been so patient whilst we addressed this issue.