Beauty and the Beast (1946)
Beauty of a 'Beast'
By Jeffrey M. Anderson After seven painstaking years spent restoring the original negative, Jean Cocteau's 1946 La Belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast) hits the Castro's big screen in a lustrous new print. It starts today and plays through Wednesday.
Jean Cocteau is perhaps known primarily as a poet and a writer who became fascinated by cinema. One of his earliest attempts at film, Blood of a Poet (1930) was a random, plotless collection of bizarre images with more than just a hint of Luis Bunuel in their inspiration.
Sixteen years later, Cocteau understood that audiences might be more willing to give themselves up to poetry if a story went along with it.
Relying heavily on cameraman Henri Alekan (who went on to shoot Roman Holiday and Wings of Desire) and composer Georges Auric, Cocteau adapted Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's famous story as a kind of double-sided world.
The action begins in a little cabin where Belle (Josette Day) lives with her father, her two vain and greedy stepsisters, and her useless brother. Her brother has a friend, Avenant (Jean Marais, Cocteau's lover in real life), who hangs around all the time and even proposes marriage to Belle.
One night, Belle's father goes to town only to learn that his would-be fortune has fallen through the cracks. He gets lost on the way back home through the woods in the dark, but stumbles upon a strange castle. Inside, arms stick out from the walls, holding onto candlesticks. Another hand poking out from a table pours him a glass of wine.
But when he picks a rose to bring home to Belle, the Beast (also played by Jean Marais) appears. Beast tells Belle's father that he must die, but that he has three days in which to return home. Either he returns himself or he sends back one of his daughters.
Despite his insistence, Belle slips out unseen in the night and journeys to Beast's castle with the help of an enchanted horse. Beast falls in love with her and keeps her prisoner, each night asking, "Will you be my wife?"
Her greedy, no good family learns about the Beast's treasures and attempts to steal them, unbeknownst to Belle.
Their actions cause the Beast to revert to human form, and Belle looks at him suspiciously before accepting him. We do too. Even in the 1991 Disney version, the humanized Beast looks funny -- colder, perhaps. According to legend, one famous screen actress yelled out during the original film's premiere, "I want my Beast back!"
Cocteau plays up the differences between the ultra-realistic world of Belle's cottage -- with its huge white sheets hung up for drying in the backyard -- and Beast's castle, with its living statues with eyes that follow you wherever you go. When Belle first enters the castle, she moves in slow motion, as if running in a dream.
Though it tells the same story, and though I love both films very much, Cocteau's version could not be more different from Disney's 1991 version. Disney concentrates on warmth and comfort while Cocteau filters the story through the strangeness of dreams. In Cocteau, you can't quite get a firm handle on anything.
Indeed, La Belle et la bête invokes magic in its storytelling. We definitely feel as if a spell has been cast. Even the film's simple (non-digital) camera tricks can still shock, as when Belle attempts to give a beautiful pearl necklace to her sister and it turns into a hunk of rotted vine.
Cocteau begins the film with a written plea to the audience, asking us to watch the film with the innocence of a child. That's not difficult to do; what's really hard is seeing the adult, erotic tendencies in the film, such as the look on Belle's face when she anticipates the Beast's daily arrival at the dinner table, or the aforementioned look of puzzlement when the Beast becomes a man.
For some reason, I had never seen La Belle et la bête until now, in this new print. I can promise firsthand that if you haven't seen it yet, now is the time to do it. I can also speculate that if you have seen it, it's a film that demands more viewings.
Criterion's 2003 DVD transfers the beautiful new print intact and comes with commentary tracks, interviews, stills, featurettes, etc.
Criterion's 2011 Blu-ray edition has a glorious black-and-white transfer with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Philip Glass's opera La Belle et la B�te, is offered as an alternate soundtrack. There are two commentaries: one by film historian Arthur Knight and one by writer and cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling. Other extras include a 1995 documentary featuring interviews with cast and crew, an interview with cinematographer Henri Alekan, behind-the-scenes photos and publicity stills, and a trailer. The liner notes booklet comes with an essay by film critic Geoffrey O'Brien, a 1947 piece on the film by Cocteau, and excerpts from Francis Steegmuller's 1970 Cocteau: A Biography.