The source story of “Beauty and the Beast” is probably the best knows French fable of all time. As such it has found its way many times on the screen, and most popular is probably the animated film from 1991 by the Walt Disney studio. However that is hardly the definitive cinematic adaptation of the story - this title would easily go to the 1946 masterpiece by Jean Cocteau as his film is a perfectly presented cinematic fairytale.
Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” opens with a request for sympathy, for the audience to try and find some childlike wonder in the magical concepts of this story. However if anything this request proves to be absolutely unnecessary because the film portrays those magical concepts with such visual finesse that the wonder comes naturally. If anything the film inspires childlike wonder. And the effects work in this film may be simple by today’s standards but the execution of the camera trickery like reverse motion shots and fade ins and repeat exposures is impeccable and completely mesmerizing.
These effects together with the amazing make-up work, costume design and production design give the film a sublime and dream-like, almost hypnotic, quality. Apart from the make-up work the best effect of the film is the magical castle of the Beast. It’s both fantastical and foreboding, as statues seem to be following Belle’s every move and hands sticking out of the walls are lighting her way in the corridors. There is a strong surrealist touch to all the scenes in the castle, a touch that is just further reinforced by the Beast that inhabits these chambers.
And as in any other incarnation of the story the Beast is the star of the show, as he is not only the most visually astounding character but also the best defined one. He is actually the only truly complex character, a character that changes throughout the story and that uncovers new and surprisingly layers of personality. Other characters are mere caricatures, like Belle’s sisters, or even mythic symbols - Belle being an incarnation of goodness and beauty. But Cocteau’s film gives the Beast a magical aura as well, not only in the form of powers but also visually. He can conjure up jewels for Belle, and when he does bad deeds he is covered by fumes of smoke. Thankfully these magical elements are never blatantly explained which gives the film a consistent layer of the unknowable, and that is exactly what magic needs to be.
Apart from being a superb romantic fable with truly wondrous effects there is also a layered subtext underneath the visual and aural dazzle. The most obvious is the moralistic tale of not judging by appearances, but if we dig a little deeper there is also a cautionary tale about greed. However the most interesting thematic thread may be the disparity between the two settings of the film and how these two worlds relate to one another. These two worlds are of course the household from which Belle comes from and the Beasts fantastical castle. They almost seem to be mirrored as there are many overlaps. For instance Belle is imprisoned in both worlds, in one serving to her needy and cruel sisters and in the other being a literal prisoner to Beast but also having no real responsibilities. Both existences are solitary and often do relate to one another as a dream would relate to the waking world - in small increments and glimpses of convergence.
Furthermore the film is filled with numerous symbols associated with the Roman Goddess of the hunt, Diana (often represented by dears and hunt dogs – images that litter the screen of this film). She is also associated with the moon and birth, and is herself a symbol of feminine strength. This just further reinforces the dream thematic and certainly relates to Beasts more predatory instincts, even when he’s interacting with Belle. But as we all know the tables turn eventually and the Beast fulfills his role in that mythological pattern, becoming the prey himself and dying, only to be saved by Belle and rise again in a new form.
“The Beauty and the Beast” is one of those films that has a spellbinding quality that just sucks me in. It’s a film that demands nothing but a little childlike wonder, and in return it is happy to provide a tale as fantastic and complex as you want it to be, which in turn makes it one of my favorite cinematic fantasies.
Original title: La belle et la bête
Jean Marias - The Beast / the prince / Avenant
Josette Day - Belle
Marcel Andre - Belle's father
Mila Parely - Felicie
Nane Germon - Adelaide
Michel Auclair - Ludovic
Original language - French