Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Favorite Film: Jean Cocteau's LA BELLE ET LA BETE (Beauty and the Beast)

Today we come to what I consider not only one of the best films of all time, but one of the most gorgeous films of all time, a true classic of movie-making genius. A film that is nothing less than a romantic inspiration, a dream realized, a lush, woven 18th century tapestry of movement. Jean Cocteau pulled out all the stops in this telling of the old BEAUTY AND THE BEAST fairy tale. He created a world which shifts from the mundane to the elaborate, from the banality of everyday poverty to the wish-fulfilling riches hidden behind the heavy iron gates of a castle. A world only to be found on a lonely road lost between reality and make-believe. What could be more enticing?

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.


  1. Good call! I can see Heathcliff stemming from The Beast. I hadn't thought of that.

    Look at that makeup! It doesn't look like a mask, it looks like they formed that Beast look onto his face like they do in modern movies. That's quite advanced for 1945 film making!

  2. Wallace: Yeah, that's a theory of mine. I'm thinking all these tortured heroes have one source.

    Yes, the makeup is fabulous! I think it's part mask and part makeup or prosthesis attached to the head. In the film, the nose and upper lip are always moist which adds a kind of ickiness to it but at the same time makes it look more real. The spellbinding thing is Marais's voice as the Beast. What a voice.

  3. This is one I have seen but it's been so long I don't remember all that much about it. Thanks for the reminder, I'm going to have to get ahold of it soon.

  4. Loved this post. We just received La Belle et la Bete from Netflix--my husband remarked that we needed to rent it again for an annual fix. An unforgettable movie. All you need to learn about cinema

  5. In my opinion, it is the greatest fairy tale movie, made shortly after World Wr II when Cocteau had difficulty just getting basic film stock. Jean Marais is so gorgeous as the wastrel I have no trouble imagining Belle falling for him. I influence of Vermeer on the mise-en-scene helps make the picture for me.

  6. Ryan: I try to watch this at least once every year. It is such a beautiful film.

  7. Healigan: Thanks for dropping by and posting for the first time. Yes, once a year - I'm on the same schedule. :) People who haven't seen this incredible film don't know what they're missing.

  8. Robin: I agree with your opinion, once again. ;)
    The influence of Vermeer, yes, exactly! The use of what appears to be, natural light, certainly. The use of props? Even in the way that Beauty has that towel wrapped around her head when she's doing laundry. THAT WONDERFUL LAUNDRY scene with the draped sheets on the line.

    Yes, Jean Marais was an incredibly beautiful man. He lived a good long life, I think. He always looked ready to charm. And he had the most marvelous speaking voice. He used it to great effect as the Beast.

  9. Really enjoyed your enthusiasm Yvette as I think it matches my own - the film is a truly poetic work, beautiful, moving and personal - basically, I agree with you wholeheartedly - magnifique!

    1. Didn't see this comment until recently, Sergio. So here is my overdue and belated thanks. We are in agreement. 'Magnifique' is right. :)


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