La Bête is back
Beauty and the Beast , fantasy, not rated, in French with subtitles, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 4 chiles
The story of Beauty and the Beast has two connections to the Jean Cocteau Cinema. One is that its owner, George R.R. Martin, worked as a writer and producer on the updated serial version of the fairy tale that premiered on CBS in 1987. The other is that Jean Cocteau (18891963), for whom the theater is named, made a celebrated film version of the tale, La Belle et la Bête , in 1946. Cocteau was known as a writer and artist before trying his hand at filmmaking, but the few films he directed are considered classics of French cinema. His earliest directorial effort, 1930’s experimental The Blood of a Poet , was the first in a loosely connected series of films known as the Orphic Trilogy. The second part of the trilogy was
Orphée (Orpheus, 1950), and the last was Cocteau’s autobiographical The Testament of Orpheus (1960). These avant-garde films helped cement his reputation as a Surrealist, though he denied the association. And despite some surreal and dreamlike sequences in La Belle et la
Bête , it is too straightforward a narrative to fit comfortably into that cultural movement.
Even with only a handful of films, Cocteau is considered an auteur director. But roughly 16 years passed between his first film and his second, La Belle et la Bête , and the director, despite his reputation today, was not an experienced filmmaker at the time it was made. He was a dilettante in the world of cinema, which makes his achievement all the greater. “One thing you have to understand about Cocteau is this was made when he was fifty-seven years old,” said film historian Brent Kliewer, programmer at The Screen and the former owner of the Jean Cocteau Cinema who gave the theater its name. “This is his first real feature film. He had already been highly accomplished in playwriting, libretto, drawing, painting, and novels. He never liked to think of himself as a filmmaker. By the time they did Beauty and the Beast , he didn’t know really anything about filmmaking. He had never even shown much of a passion for it growing up.” By 1946, Cocteau, a recovered opium addict, had amassed a substantial number of literary works, including the theatrical version of Orphée (1925) and the 1929 novel Les Enfants
Terribles. A film version of Les Enfants Terribles appeared in 1950, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.
Beauty and the Beast , adapted from French author Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 18th-century story, begins with an honest mistake on the part of Belle’s father (Marcel André), a poor man whose fortune was lost at sea. When the father picks a rose for her from the garden of a castle belonging to the Beast (Jean Marais), he unwittingly condemns himself to death for the crime. The Beast, once a human child whose parents did not believe in spirits, was transformed into his present, fearsome state as revenge for their disbelief. The Beast confronts Belle’s father over the theft of the rose and decides to spare the man’s life — but only if he sends one of his three daughters in his place. The graceful but haplessly Cinderella-like Belle (Josette Day), who lives with her father, her brother, and her spiteful, cunning sisters, sets off to the Beast’s mysterious, enchanted abode. There, she meets the terrifying creature, who falls in love with her, asking daily for her hand in marriage. Belle’s fondness for the Beast grows in time, but when she peers into his magic mirror she learns that her father is gravely ill and begs to be allowed to see him. The Beast agrees, but with the condition that she returns within seven days.
The film, like the story on which it’s based, has all the makings of classic fairy tale. Cocteau mined both literary sources and art history in bringing it to the screen. The pastoral setting of Belle’s home life found precedent in the work of Vermeer; for the Beast’s opulent castle, the filmmaker was inspired by the engravings of French illustrator Gustave Doré. “That’s typical Cocteau,” Kliewer said. “You fuse all this information into the work. Also, there’s a blending of antiquity with modernism.”
In order to realize his vision, Cocteau assembled a team that included production designer Christian Bérard, a fashion illustrator for Coco Chanel who also took an uncredited role as one of the film’s costume designers; his friend composer Georges Auric to score the film; and cinematographer Henri Alekan, who would go on to work on William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953) and Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire (1987). “He and Henri Alekan fought like cats and dogs,” Kliewer said. “Alekan did all the camera setups. He didn’t have a bunch of minions around and union people. He did everything himself. Alekan wanted to move the camera around, and Cocteau wanted to keep it still. He thought keeping it still was being more avant-garde, more cutting-edge, because, by the late ’40s, everyone’s moving the camera all over the place.”
Cocteau wanted a documentary feel for the film. He had to rely on several different kinds of film stock to complete the picture because, in the wake of World War II, film supplies were not so easy to obtain in France. When he fell ill during filming and needed to be hospitalized, he hired a well-known documentarian, René Clément (uncredited), to help direct. Clément later directed several highly regarded French films, including 1952’s Forbidden Games . But Cocteau’s star was his lover Jean Marais, who endured endless hours of makeup sessions for his daily transformation into the Beast. “Bérard wanted the Beast to be a stag,” Kliewer explained. “When Cocteau made The Testament of
, his last film, the stag is in there. You don’t ever imagine the Beast looking like this. Cocteau ruled that the audience would laugh. He was probably right. It would have been an odd choice for that particular role, but it’s a phenomenal-looking creature when you see what they had in mind.” No less phenomenal is the Beast as it actually appears on screen: a threatening, fanged creature with a hirsute, lionlike face. Upon seeing Marais without his makeup, Greta Garbo allegedly insisted, “Give me back my Beast!” The sentiment was echoed by film audiences, upset by the false ring of a key moment in which we see Marais as man rather than Beast.
Some of the film’s most memorable moments come from uncanny in-camera effects produced by slowmotion and reverse-motion photography. “The tricks were subsumed into the narrative. They’re very simple camera tricks that become poetic. It’s a distillation of the ineffable. It’s making people feel something they can’t quite articulate.” Other effects are achieved through staging: Candelabras extend from the castle walls, held aloft by disembodied arms, and classical statues and marble busts follow Belle with their eyes as she moves about the castle. A beautiful sequence shows a falling tear magically transformed into a diamond. The Beast’s castle is a marvel of set design, full of grandeur but tinged with darkness that mirrors the Beast’s noble but tortured, solitary existence. In that bewitching castle, inanimate objects take on a life of their own as if they house the spirits of trapped souls. “Belle,” we hear at one point, “je suis la porte de votre chambre” (I am the door to your room). “Cocteau’s idea of fantasy goes back to the German Romantic period or, in film sense, to the [Georges] Méliès period,” Kliewer said. “Right off the bat, after Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers, you see film going down two paths: the realism path and the trick film path, which is fantasy.”
Trick photography, which became something of a signature for Cocteau, is prevalent in all of his films. “There’s this strand to his work that becomes intertwined, and it’s classical mythology mixed with personal mythology. There’s this constant building of his own set of hieroglyphics, his own set of — I don’t want to say ‘symbols,’ because he would probably reject that word. You have to realize that possibly the greatest invention in Cocteau’s life was himself. You never quite know where truth ends and mythology begins because he built his whole career on writing his own story. He was very much a dandy and a provocateur.”
When Belle is temporarily released from the Beast’s lair, she is cruelly deceived by her sisters into remaining past the seven days. The heartbroken Beast succumbs to despair, leading to what we assume will be a tragic outcome. But instead, La Belle et la Bête is given a perfunctory, dissatisfying conclusion in keeping with many a fairy tale, as well as with the ending of de Beaumont’s story. It’s in sharp contrast with the film’s darker themes — and Cocteau the provocateur seems to be winking at his audiences by including it. “He knew well enough it had to end that way,” Kliewer said. “The Greeks called it the deus ex machina. The ending is forced on there because that’s what people want, but it’s not where the film is headed.” Paradoxically, like a sonnet (Cocteau was as much poet as filmmaker), the ending provides a sting in its tail. The typical happily-ever-after so common in the folk tales told to children — and La Belle et la Bête is squarely in that genre — is an illusion.
— Michael Abatemarco
Creature comfort: opposite page and above,
Jean Marais and Josette Day Below, Marais becoming Jean Cocteau’s Beast
Images courtesy The Criterion Collection