❉ David Llewellyn unpicks Jean Cocteau’s dreamlike adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, released in High Definition for the first time.
“Though made just 13 years before Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups, La Belle et la Bête is a far cry from the cinéma vérité of the French New Wave. This is cinema at its most baroque. The performances are heightened, reminiscent of silent movies or Eisenstein’s later work, but they serve the story perfectly”
Beauty and the Beast is the timeless, Stockholm syndrome-infused story of a beautiful young woman held captive by a monstrous creature. Though first written down by Gabrielle Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740, it was the 1756 version by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont that secured the fairy tale’s lasting fame.
Today, it’s perhaps best known through its various adaptations, from the 1991 Disney movie (the first animated film to be Oscar-nominated for Best Picture) to the 2017 Disney movie (which wasn’t). Hellboy star Ron Perlman played the beast to Linda Hamilton’s beauty in an ’80s TV series that bore little resemblance to the fairy tale, while Angela Carter offered her own postmodern interpretations in The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride, both from her 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber.
It was Carter who situated Beauty and the Beast among tales such as Bluebeard and Little Red Riding Hood. There’s a sense in her work that Beauty and the Beast draws on something primal, an idea repeated throughout folklore; a virtuous woman using her feminine charms to soothe man’s “savage beast”, or what we might nowadays term “toxic masculinity”.
As such, the story often needs a little seasoning to suit a modern palette. Disney made Belle an intelligent, bookish girl harassed by the local knucklehead; her indifference to him in stark contrast with her swooning peers. But it was arguably Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946) that paved the way for later, more empowered Belles, while doing so in a cunningly provocative way.
Prior to making the film, Cocteau’s reputation lay in his poetry and collaborations with composers such as Erik Satie, Francis Poulenc and Igor Stravinsky. La Belle et la bête was only his second film, and he began developing the project over a decade after his debut, La sang d’un poète.
This 1930 avant-garde work blurred the boundaries between reality and fantasy, and in Beauty and the Beast Cocteau saw an opportunity to explore similar ideas in a mainstream context. Though intended to provide war-weary audiences with much-needed escapism, the film was ultimately produced in 1946, a year after the war’s end, with Josette Day as Belle and Cocteau’s lover and muse Jean Marais as the Beast.
From the start, it’s clear this isn’t necessarily a fairy tale for children. Though he wished to create something with popular appeal, Cocteau couldn’t resist an off-kilter beginning. First, the opening titles are scrawled across a blackboard in chalk, each name wiped off to make room for the next. Then, as a clapper loader announces “Take One”, Cocteau interrupts with a handwritten note, asking the audience to watch his film with a childlike innocence.
Cocteau was a major figure in Paris’s art scene, associating with figures such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Salvador Dali, and surrealism’s influence can be felt throughout, most prominently when Belle’s hapless father first encounters the Beast’s enchanted castle. Sculpted arms clutching candelabra protrude from the walls, springing to life and directing the intruder along the castle’s darkened corridors. Sculpted faces in the pilasters of a grand fireplace open their eyes and breathe smoke out through their nostrils.
Much of the story from here on will be familiar. Belle’s father steals a rose from the Beast’s garden. As punishment, the Beast says he can either kill the old man, or receive his beautiful daughter as a permanent guest. Belle agrees to take her father’s place and joins the Beast in his castle.
Where Cocteau’s treatment differs from the 18th Century telling is Belle’s agency, her command over her own fate. The original has Belle’s father take her to the castle. Here she goes, reluctantly, of her own accord, mounting the Beast’s horse and asking it to take her there.
This horse is the only way in or out of the Beast’s realm, and there’s a sense throughout that this place is somehow separate from Belle’s reality, existing on a dreamlike, semi-imaginary plane; what the French poet Yves Bonnefoy called the Arriére-pays.
An eerie slow motion sequence brings Belle into the castle, but despite the same ghoulish grey arms reaching from the walls, the same living statuary, the tone is quite different. Her father’s introduction to this world harked back to German Expressionism – all shadows, mystery and threat – Belle moves gracefully, as if skating on ice. Drawn along, and perhaps not entirely against her will.
Once the Beast establishes the ground rules, Belle quickly becomes the more dominant of the two. The Beast kneels before her, apologises to her, and drinks water from her cupped hands in an act of supplication. When she rejects his nightly offers of marriage, he accepts those rejections stoically. When Belle chastises him, he is timid. When she becomes submissive, he is angry. The Beast sees himself as a beast, and therefore her inferior. Given that Cocteau would later provide NSFW illustrations for Jean Genet’s novel Querelle de Brest, is it too much to suggest that there’s an almost fetishistic quality to these scenes?
In her father’s home, Belle is a Cinderella-like character – Cocteau even strays from the original text to give her horrible sisters who treat her like a servant. Her handsome admirer, Avenant, is overbearing and smug, and seems incapable of seeing Belle as anything other than a damsel in distress. It’s Belle’s choice to leave this world behind, and in the Beast’s castle she becomes the lady of the house, served on by invisible hands, with an admirer who utterly depends upon her.
Mirrors and reflections are a recurring motif (the first time we see Belle, it’s as a reflection in a polished surface), and this theme is accentuated by the casting of Jean Marais (minus furry make-up) as the boorish Avenant. This wasn’t just a case of “doubling up”. The film’s climax – in which Avenant attempts to steal the Beast’s treasure – uses this double-casting to harmonise Belle’s relationship with the Beast. The arrogant, conniving Avenant is killed (by a living statue of the goddess Diana, no less) and transformed into a Beast. The Beast, pining away in Belle’s absence, recovers and becomes a handsome prince who looks uncannily like Avenant.
Some clever editing and practical effects (in one shot, Belle appears to emerge from a solid wall) drive home the idea that Belle and the Beast’s relationship is one of separate lives coming together in harmony. The Beast becomes a man Belle can rely on (her father, brother and Avenant all being dominating but weak), while Belle is the woman who can see beyond the Beast’s ugliness and save him from his ugly side. (Side note: La Belle et la Bête would surely make an interesting double-bill with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread.) The film ends with the happy couple flying off into the clouds, as if to suggest they’ve abandoned both worlds (drudgery in the family homestead and the Beast’s cobwebby old castle) for some other, unknown paradise.
It would be a mistake to label this film proto-feminist. It still ends, conventionally, with a handsome prince sweeping the heroine into his arms. But still… our scoundrel character meets his comeuppance at the hands of a goddess, and Belle’s decision to go to the castle is hers alone. She ends up with a man who looks like the handsome Avenant, but with the Beast’s personality. Both elements are absent from the original story.
Similarly, despite its avant-garde credentials, the film isn’t particularly experimental or ground-breaking, even in mainstream cinema. (Salvador Dali had designed the dream sequences for Hitchcock’s film Spellbound a year previously.) Though made just 13 years before Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups, La Belle et la Bête is a far cry from the cinéma vérité of the French New Wave. This is cinema at its most baroque. The performances are heightened, reminiscent of silent movies or Eisenstein’s later work, but they serve the story perfectly. And George Auric’s score may seem a little highly strung to modern ears (even Cocteau’s praise for it was subdued) but the choral passages are reminiscent of Walt Disney’s early animated features, and it’s interesting that Disney would bring back the castle’s living ornaments (another of Cocteau’s inventions) in their own Beauty and the Beast.
The BFI Blu-Ray release of La Belle et la bête features a 4K restoration of the film by SNC and Cinématique française. Those who have sat through some of the earlier, fuzzier renderings will appreciate how much this brings Christian Bérard’s ravishing production design to the fore. An insightful commentary from Christopher Frayling and an hour-long “making of” documentary are complemented by deleted scenes, a 1938 animated short based on Bluebeard and another documentary focusing on the long-time collaboration between Cocteau and Bérard.
(Postscript: La Belle et la Bête was remade as a 1984 episode of the TV series Faerie Tale Theater. Directed by Roger Vadim (Barbarella) and introduced – as always – by Shelley Duvall, it starred Susan Sarandon as Belle and Klaus Kinski as the Beast. It is currently available – in a presumably non-licensed and defiantly non-HD copy – on YouTube.)
❉ Newly presented in High Definition from the French 4K restoration (by SNC and the Cinémathèque française)
❉ Feature commentary by cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling
❉ Des Réves de Cocteau en numerérique, l’aventure de la Belle et la bête (2013, 51 mins)
❉ Christian Bérard et Jean Cocteau, deux magiciens du spectacle (2013, 24 mins)
❉ Deleted scenes (6 mins): film and audio clips from scenes that were not included in the final film
❉ Barbe Bleue (René Bertrand, 1938, 13 mins): an animated version of Perrault’s Bluebeard
❉ Original theatrical trailer
❉ BFI trailer (2013)
❉ Stills gallery
❉ Illustrated booklet with essays by Dr Deborah Allison, Marina Warner and George E Turner, and full film credits
❉ ‘Belle Et La Bete’ Released on Blu-ray on 6 August 2018, RRP: £19.99. Cat. no. BFIB1308 / Cert PG.
❉ DAVID LLEWELLYN is a novelist and scriptwriter based in Cardiff. His new novel A Simple Scale goes on sale on August 20th.