La Bête is back

Pasatiempo - - RANDOM ACTS - Or­pheus

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

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