La Belle et la bête Review

La Belle et la bête opens with the image of a blackboard, its surface being used, by director Jean Cocteau himself, to scribble on the film’s title and its credits. It’s a personal touch reminding the viewer that this is very much a personal film (Cocteau would employ the technique again for his 1950 masterpiece Orphée) despite being taken from a well-known fairy tale source. The director’s on-screen participation doesn’t end here, however. Immediately following the credit sequence, a clapper board is seen - about to instigate the film’s proper beginning - but is interrupted by a voice. Cocteau hasn’t quite finished with the introduction and so an intertitle asks the audience to approach the film with a child’s eye, one without cynicism.

The intertitle concludes on “four magic words”, once upon a time (“il était un fois”), and it is Cocteau’s understanding of these, and the fairy tale as a whole, that makes La Belle et la bête such a magnificent work. The character of Belle (Josette Day) is introduced in bleak circumstances: her father is heavily in debt, a situation only strengthened by her brother’s gambling; her sisters maintain their snobbish attitudes despite the family problems and the disrespect afforded them by the servants and their brother (“May the Devil splatter you with dung” he cries to them at one point). Indeed, there is an incredible dysfunction to these characters and, despite Cocteau’s decision to play the family dramas as broad comedy, a tangible darkness prevails. After all matters of bankruptcy are hardly going to resolve themselves in a conventional “happy ending” manner.

This tone is just as apparent for the Beast’s first scene. Having stolen a rose from the Beast’s garden following an unsuccessful attempt to get his financial worries into some semblance of order, the father is given three days to live. Such a threat places the Beast in much the same, less than pleasant, light as the sisters. Moreover, just prior to his entrance, Cocteau inserts a shot of a deer with its throat cut, asserting his ruthless manner.

With the exception of this fantastical character, La Belle et la bête has up until this point created a world defined by its reality (aided most prominently by the almost complete lack of studio sets during these earlier moments) allowing for a demonstrative contrast with the enchanted castle setting in which much of the remaining screen time will be played out. (For those unaware of Mme. Leprince de Beaumont’s original story, Belle decides - unbeknownst to him - to take her father’s place.) It is within this locale that Cocteau creates a truly magnificent atmosphere, presenting it with very subtle use of light, and in doing so asking the audience to employ their own imaginations as much as he has used his own. Certainly, his creative impulses provide some fantastic instances, most notably Belle’s famous entry into the castle, conducted in both complete silence and slow motion, and the decision to populate it with talking doors and mirrors, not to mention the “human” arms that carry the candlesticks or the faces that occupy the fireplaces.

Intriguingly, without the presence of these other “occupants”, the developing romance that plays out between Belle and her captor would almost be that of a chamber piece. The dialogue is the driving force of the film, especially as it becomes apparent to Belle (and therefore the audience, she being their point of identification) that the Beast is character governed by impulses beyond his control, much like (as both Prof. Christopher Frayling and Philip Kemp mention in their respective commentary and sleeve notes) the Frankenstein’s monster in James Whale’s 1932 film - consider, for example, the scene where Karloff unwittingly throws a young girl to her death.

Jean Marais’ performance as the Beast is therefore integral to La Belle et la bête’s success, and he produces a moving display of emotion. Whilst the actor is often denounced as a poor leading man who only gained such roles owing to the fact that he was Cocteau’s lover, it is genuinely remarkable that he is able to produce the results that he does. The make-up practically engulfs his entire his entire body, leaving only his eyes and vocal chords as a means of expression. Moreover, a comparison with the 1991 Disney version of the tale also proves constructive. That film may have appropriated many of Cocteau’s ideas (a matter Frayling discusses at length in his commentary), including the Beast’s look, but never dares to approach the character with the multiple layers of darkness that Marais achieves. (And this cannot be dismissed by defending Beauty and the Beast as a Disney film; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio and The Lion King all toy with nightmarish and less than whimsical details.)

In contrast, Josette Day’s performance is one that depends on here entire body. Seemingly taking her cue from the fact that she has only limited dialogue, Day plays out the entire piece as though she were a silent movie actress. Her sheer fragile beauty prompts the impression of daintiness, thereby allowing a series of grand poses to produce the required emotions. Of course, her slender frame when placed opposite the enlarged upper body of Marais’ beast, all shoulders and chest, makes the interplay between the two all the more potent. It’s a sign of La Belle et la bête’s power that despite being, obviously, a complete fantasy, it remains infinitely more moving than the numerous (mostly American) romantic comedies that have taken the tale as their inspiration.

The Disc

The print used here is one taken from Paris’ Cinearchives. Whilst it often has to contend with numerous tiny scratches, the image is generally clear enough to appreciate Henri Alekan’s fine use of light and shadow. Technically, the disc presents no sign of artifacting or any other such difficulties, and retains the original Academy ratio.

The monaural sound mix (of the original French, presented over the front two speakers) is similarly lacking in complete clarity, but it remains listenable throughout. As with the picture’s ability to demonstrate Alekan’s photography, so too is George Auric’s famed score presented well enough to afford a full appreciation.

In terms of extras, the BFI have been kind enough to release La Belle et la bête with some excellent supporting features. Pick of the bunch is the 28 minute documentary Screening at the Majestic. This 1987 French effort is not dissimilar to the BBC series Big Screen Britain insofar as it returns to the film’s location many years later in order to narrate its making. Only three cast and crew members interviewed, perhaps as they were the only surviving members, yet the reminiscences of Marais, actress Mila Parely (who played Adelaide, one of Belle’s sisters) and director of photography Alekan, alongside a voice-over narration derived from Cocteau’s on-set diary, prove more than enough to relate La Belle et la bête’s production. (Note that this piece, as with the main feature, has non-optional English subtitles.)

Any missing gaps are filled by Christopher Frayling’s wonderfully full commentary (no lengthy, unwanted silences here). As well as touching on the film’s making, Frayling also notes the influences La Belle et la bête was to have on subsequent films (and not just remakes) as well as tracing those which had influenced its own conception. Most valuable, however, is the way in which he teases out the film’s meaning, placing it inside Cocteau’s oeuvre, most pertinently by referring to the original text. All of which makes it a shame that Frayling’s delivery is a little dry; whilst academic commentaries are undoubtedly welcome (consider Yuri Tsivian’s for Man With a Movie Camera, or Camille Paglia’s for Basic Instinct) one can’t help but wish for a little more enthusiasm. As such, only the film’s firmest admirers will stay with Frayling for the duration, rather than tackle it in smaller bites.

Elsewhere, the extras are more familiar: brief biographies for Cocteau and “technical advisor” René Clément; sleeve notes by critic Philip Kemp; three short galleries including a pair of 1811 engravings by Charles Lamb courtesy of the British Library (their significance is discussed in the commentary); plus the seemingly obligatory weblink.

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