Jean Marais, an incredibly handsome actor and (in real life) Cocteau's lover, is beautifully cast (and beautifully photographed) as Beast, his 'true' beauty hidden away behind 'beastly' raiment. Yet, Marais is also cast as the wastrel Avenant- whose outer beauty hides an inner ugliness. The character of Beauty is kind of sappy about Avenant which doesn't say much for her level of taste. But Marais is so good looking, you almost can't blame her. Avenant hangs about with Beauty's n'er do well brother - both are loafers up to no good. It is their conspiring which brings about tragedy near the end.
Josette Day as Beauty is kind of bland in comparison. She is the all good, all dutiful daughter, so sweet and self sacrificing that she makes you want to scream. (Kind of like Cinderella.) No wonder her wretched sisters take advantage of her. And her father is an useless example of incompetent, hapless boob if ever there was one. If I were Beauty I'd choose life with the Beast without a moment's hesitation. But then, I am not all good and self-sacrificing.
Marais as the Beast is a heartbroken hero, aware of his 'beastly nature' yet drawn to Beauty like a moth to flame. He must have her love if he is to survive and break the spell which has cast him down. Marais plays this perfectly. He falls instantly in love with Beauty, of course. He must, he has no choice. But he is in torment. You see the self-hatred in his attempts to keep Beauty from knowing his need to hunt and kill his food. When he is aroused by Beauty, he sends her to her room lest he be tempted to display his beastly urges. Your own heart breaks for him because, in truth, he is dying of alienation and loneliness.
There is one scene in which Beauty allows Beast to lap water cupped in her hands which is as sexual in tone and much more effective than any dozen bedding and sweating scenes from today's 'anything goes' type of movie-making.
The castle itself, Beast's coldly luxurious lair, is amazing to behold. The art direction is a realized fantasy, the castle appears almost to live and breathe. It is an elaborate tomb in which nothing goes unnoticed. (Some of the outdoor scenes were shot at a real and very elaborate French chateau where large animal statuary added a shadowy, ominous note.)
There are many incredible scenes in La Belle et La Bete that continue to live in memory long after the final credits. But I won't elaborate, if you're unlucky enough NOT to have seen the film, I won't spoil it for you. But I will say that the art direction is unlike anything else you've ever seen. Jean Cocteau creates his own version of fantasy.
Though this 1945 film is done entirely in black and white, it is usually remembered in color. The images are that rich in texture and tone, the camera work vivid, the direction inspired and the costumes are to die for. It is a French film, of course and the beauty of that language adds to the mystic quality of the film. (Sub-titles included and not very intrusive.)
You may know my theory that Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff and other tortured romantic heroes of that ilk stem directly from Beast and this film merely enhances my view.
It is almost impossible to discuss La Belle et La Bete without gushing, as you can see from my own enthusiasm. I've loved this film since I first saw it many, MANY years ago and I urge anyone who hasn't been fortunate enough to see this AND who loves movies to get hold of a copy immediately.