Beauty and the Beast (1946) Review

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: July 29, 2017

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Submitted: July 29, 2017



















Beauty and the Beast is a 1946 fantasy-romance directed by Jean Cocteau, and it’s an adaptation of the famous fairy tale about the love for internal beauty, in which a merchant attempts to return home after failing to retrieve his lost cargo. Lost, he stumbles across another domain populated by an empty castle surrounded by strange figures, from disembodied hands holding candelabras to faces of statues with intense stares. While taking a stroll through the garden, he remembers the request of his daughter, Belle, to retrieve for her a rose. He plucks one, only to face the wrath of a Beast. Though determined to kill him, the Beast shows mercy, and offers the merchant a chance to leave with the rose, and either his daughters should replace or that he must return to face his penalty. Belle, the daughter he cost his life for, is selfless enough to leave without letting anyone know. She arrives at the castle, and thus begins the relationship between our titular characters, where the notion of love and loyalty is tested.

 The film starts off with a behind the scenes shooting, where we see the main titles being illustrated on a black board by Cocteau along with some background illustrations. Then, as the film is about to roll, Cocteau halts it to deliver a speech; children believe in many things adults say, and adults were once children themselves. He asks us to see the world the same way as they have when we were young so we can be prepared for this film, which was, in several ways, his debut film, though he did a short before. Finally, he ends the speech with what he describes as the “Open sesame” of childhood: “Once upon a time…”

 Nowadays, when one thinks of fairy tales, it’s not hard to consider them mainstream. After all, they have proven themselves time and time again to be layered in different levels according to the social period in which they adopt to, while still retaining a timeless feel and effective moral lessons. Not to mention, they distract people from everyday life and are financially profitable. Yet, not only is La Belle et La Bete considered, by today’s standards, to be one of the more surreal adaptations of one of the most famous works of the genre, it does have an approach that has yet to be tread upon by anyone else other than Cocteau.

 You see, aside from being a filmmaker, Cocteau was also a painter, writer, and poet. He admitted that he saw himself more as a poet than a filmmaker, and it does show in some discontinuities in the editing, due to the limited film stock thanks to the aftermath of the Second World War, and one not obvious, but still glaring example where a microphone is seen hanging in the air as Ludovic and Avenant, Belle’s brother and lover, attempt to enter the Beast’s vault. Some, especially modern audiences, may find the acting distant or cold, which is not the case, but one must understand that perceptions of acting change over time. Despite this, one can never deny Jean Marais’ soulful and Byronic Beast, and Josette Day’s illuminating but also icy Belle express more thoroughly in their relationship and in their characters than any other subsequent adaptation of the tale.

 But this act is, on Cocteau’s part, intentional. He has worked his magic on us, surprised us by making us see the reflection of the mirror on the screen. We believe in this world, in this gap of domains that exists between Belle’s and Beast’s, but we are also aware that it is a film. It has us by the end come out with a perplexed consideration, where we are not sure whether we enjoyed watching it or not. Cocteau’s view on art is often compared to the Orpheus legend – the artist sinking deeper, and in Cocteau’s mind, when they come out again, they are changed, having learned something about themselves and about the arts. That would explain why he would choose a fairy tale, a myth passed from generation to generation and given a different form even when it is the same story, much like the Greek legends or the works of Shakespeare, as his metaphor being given a feature, an idea that beautifully and brilliantly collides with the characters as they discover themselves from the inside and evolve into changed people. And as a token of gratitude, Diana has an appearance in this film, though she does play a major part in the plot. Cocteau wanted us to show what it would be like to have a poet or a painter, not a filmmaker, create a film. Not only is the result magnificent, but also one of the finest achievements in cinema.

 However, despite all the layers and metaphors in and out of the film (the dove in a cage in the background of Belle’s room in her home) it is still a relatively simple film. It asks us to view it with childlike simplicity, but it does not force us to. Adults can watch it and still gaze at the visual beauty of it. The benefit of being a painter more than a filmmaker has made Cocteau create a film in which even the mundane real world has its beauties, in spite of all the mishaps that exist in it, something that almost never happens in other fantasy films of any kind. It is once again the creator reinforcing his idea of the beautiful underneath the hideous, and another metaphor that belies the story and the journey it guides us through.

 The Beast’s world and the castle, inspired by the illustrations of Gustave Dore, are much like the painter’s works, haunting and epic, yet subtle and gracious. There are shadows and dark hallways, and different doors leading to separate areas, yet outside, there is nothing more than a garden and a lake. Even the black and white cinematography and the grey shades of Dore’s accomplishments seem filled with color that it’s hard to believe that this was a film stock that was nearing expiration.

 Though it was released in 1946, the lead characters are modern in their depictions, and the progression of their personalities is very clear without being trivial. Belle starts off fragile and more protective of her virginity, holding off the offers and passes of Avenant, a suitor who is handsome in features but despicable of heart (played by Marias, who also played the Beast.) She is devoted to her father, and is compassionate to the point that she would rather die in his place. Once she is left on her own in the castle with her strange host, she gathers her strength and in many ways, becomes the dominant partner in the relationship without being manipulative, as well as more sexual in her desires, and yet, her passionate nature and ultimate claim of love for the Beast is enacted upon with absolute certainty. Like many fairy tales, it is a trial of adolescence for which one matures and decides their own destiny. The Beast, a lion-like creature (a simple but effective work of makeup that holds rather well today) is majestic but also staggering, his body almost stiff and struggling with his emotions. Isolated and almost on the brink of sanity, his rite of passage has him overcoming his addictions to his animalistic nature and to cease his self-pitying when he realizes that Belle unintentionally suffers as much as he does, and he could perhaps drag her to the misery that he endured. He eventually sees her not as a tool to lift the curse, but as someone whom he offers his trust and loyalty to, so much so that his grief of losing her will be deadly to him. The relationship is venomous and predatorily at first, but gradually wanes and becomes a declaration of respect and longing. This is truly a love story for the ages, and yet it is the best representation of this relationship due to its execution, where we follow the point of view of both characters and trail along as they collide each time.

 Their actions are indirect and silent, though the music score is often bombastic, a tone that the entire film goes through. The film has slight dialogue, and has most of the emotions spoken by facial expressions (Beast’s moist and sad eyes, Belle’s glances, etc.) body language (Belle’s swaying from side to side,) and visuals (mirrors are the most frequent) much like a silent film. There are times when the film may seem like it is losing edge, only to pick itself right back up before the audience gives up. There are elements of the radiant wonder in fairy tales, where the fantastic seems quickly accepted by the normal, as if they longed for it to happen, but there are trappings of horror and claustrophobia that shows the psychological aspect of the characters. The costumes are characters as well, almost like extensions of the body and soul, several scenes are unforgettable (the arms holding the candles, Belle’s journey through the inside of the castle, the Beast carrying Belle to her room, the Beast’s burning hand, etc.) and the passion the director has for the material adds even more weight to the film, although not much happens, but there is a sense of motion.

 La Belle et La Bete is, I must stress once again, a masterpiece of what not only what film’s impact can be on the world if used correctly, but what the human mind and imagination is capable of. If film hadn’t existed, it might have been a product of another art, and still be as effective, though I could be mistaken. Most importantly, it is an achievement of what an artist did that so few could; he reflected life itself just as he showed the nature of film’s relationship with the audience. Life is a comfort, just as it is an omen. However we see it, it actually leaves us, the viewer, to decide what we want or wish it to be. Where to stop, where to end, and when to keep moving.

 Poetic, sensual, evocative, intellectual, modest, romantic and truthful, La Belle et La Bete is one of the greatest films of all time.

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