La Belle et la bête Review

La Belle et la bête was originally released by the BFI in 2001. Having previously reviewed the disc for DVD Times I have simply reproduced my discussion of the film itself below. For those wishing to see how the two versions differ simply scroll down to the section marked ‘The Disc’.

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 BFI’s 2001 edition of La Belle et la bête, for the time, was an excellent DVD presentation of the original film. It came with attractive packaging, presented the film in a generally pleasing condition and hosted a number of extras including commentary by Sir Christopher Frayling, a French retrospective featurette entitled Screening at the Majestic, plus the then-standard BFI additions of biographies, gallery and liner notes (in this case by Philip Kemp). Of course, the main enticement for this re-release lies with the presentation itself, and all-round it is the superior effort. The once burnt-in subtitles are now replaced by the optional variety (though the translation remains the same) and the picture quality has scrubbed up nicely. The overall clarity and contrast of the image is little different, but importantly the damage has now been removed so that whereas once scratches and the like danced all over the screen, we now get a clean, clear picture. It goes without saying that the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio is once more in place and the film itself is no different – still running to its original 90 minutes (bearing in mind PAL speed-up) and the chapter stops of the 2001 edition are similarly identical.

The soundtrack, previously rendered in DD2.0 monaural form, is now given the PCM treatment which allows for a slight improvement in clarity, though not – to be perfectly honest – to any overly discernible effect. As with the earlier edition it sounds pretty much as you would expect from a film of 1946 vintage and we really shouldn’t expect any better. As already stated the English subtitles are now optional.

Unfortunately, some of the extras have gone missing on the new disc. Screening at the Majestic is sadly no longer present, most likely owing to the rights having elapsed, which is disappointing as it proved to be an engaging piece over its 23-minute duration. Similarly the galleries of posters and engravings have also disappeared, though the biographies for Cocteau and leads Jean Marais and Josette Day appear in the accompanying booklet as opposed to on-screen. Frayling’s commentary once more puts in an appearance and for my thoughts on that please refer to my original review. The only real addition then is the BFI’s now-standard booklet containing articles, extracts from Cocteau’s diary, the aforementioned biographies, full credits and various production stills. Totalling 30 pages it’s an attractive little attachment (and the articles, by Marina Warner and George Turner – the former being newly commission – do all their warrant inclusion), though of course it was always going to be the presentation itself which would sway those considering a re-purchase. That said, for those who are yet to own (or even yet to have seen) Cocteau’s masterpiece, then there really is scant reason to not highly recommend this new disc.

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