Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast - Released September 1946. Directed by Jean Cocteau

A thoughtful, imaginative and visually brilliant faery tale about a beautiful prisoner (Josette Day) in a haunted castle held captive by a vengeful, tormented beast (Jean Marais).

Belle: I don't feel at ease in all this finery, and I'm not used to being waited on. But I sense you are doing everything possible to help me forget your ugliness.

Beast: I have a good heart, but I am a monster.

Beauty and the Beast is a movie which overlaps into other genre areas but remains all the same a unique, one of a kind film. Though classified as a phantasy film, Beauty and the Beast has classic horror movie elements, from the menacing way the Beast moves closer to Belle as she lies helpless upon her bed (more or less like Lugosi's Dracula and a dozen other classic film monsters) to the spooky castle with arms that hang out of the walls (like a similar visual used in Val Lewton films), to the most obvious deja vu visual, Lon Chaney Jrs. The Wolf Man. These superficial similarities aside, Cocteau's movie isn't a true Gothic monster movie at all but a French* film that draws not only on faery tale traditions but on silent era cinema with sections of pantomime and a kind of narrative vagueness that helps the film progress on two levels, one childlike and another far more adult.

The story shows how love is earned, or spurned and wasted. We have Belle's horrid sisters which seek to undermine her (or possibly murder her) at every move, or her wastrel brother who lacks their cruelty, but drags the whole family, by a combination of sloth and foolish interactions with moneylenders, into poverty. And then there is the love of the beast for his prisoner, and the prisoner's love for her captive which develops into a simple irony: the beast empowers Belle to leave her prison whenever she wishes, but Belle is incapable of freeing the Beast of his love for her.

How did she and the beast come to be in this predicament? Belle's father pilfered a single rose from the Beast's castle garden, which he learns to his horror is a death penalty offense, but he is given parole on condition that Belle comes to the castle as a substitute hostage. Rapidly, though, once she arrives, the Beast is being commanded by Belle in small ways, and step-by-step, he is changing.

It is unconvincing in the story that the Beast is truly just an animal, and there is no surprise when he admits he was once a man, for we somehow know that all along, either because of how Jean Marais plays the character, or because of the similarities to so many older horror films in which the monster was once a man, or because of our familiarity through other films with the Beauty and the Beast story arc. But Cocteau's tale stays true to the story sources about a man imprisoned inside the body of a beast as judgment against him by magical forces, and further, Cocteau barely lets the film move outside of his goal of making a true 17th century "faery story" such that 20th century modifications on psychology and morality are are not allowed to crowd in. The result is something unique that is different and remains different no matter what era it is being screened in (and is memorable in a way that the $160 million dollar budget Disney film of 2017 is not).

Beauty and the Beast features inventive cinematography and special effects, and Cocteau knows he has something special here, as he will slow down frame rates to make sure we ponder the image and do what he seems to be doing, basking in the sheer gorgeousness of the scenes, all intertwined with the dreamlike tone. Often it is reminiscent of an older era of cinema in which the image alone communicated the tale, and swirling smoke, fog and mist play important parts throughout the story, usualy wordless.

The "invisible servants" of the original 17th century novel are modified here as living objects throughout the castle, sculptures that are alive (and can kill if need be) and guard the Beast and look upon Belle with curiosity. But also, motion itself is incorporated into the dream, with Belle floating down a hallway, or a magical horse teleporting (or galloping, if you prefer) across distances in a moment. Scenes with a lot of dialogue (those involving Belle's family in the "real world") are shot in real time and with the same seriousness and bits of humor that can be found in any well done costume drama. But rapid, real-time motion in the dreamlike sequences of the haunted castle are often a shock.

As powerful as the Beast is, and as awful and double-dealing as much of Belle's family (and the family friend Avenant, also played by Morais) is, it is Belle's refusal to bend to their greed or to accept the Beast's near-demise (which would free her completely) when she finds him weakened and expiring next to his lake, being pecked at by angry swans:

Belle: Use those powerful claws to hang onto to life! Fight! Get up and let out a roar! Scare death away!

Beast: Belle, if I were a man, perhaps I could do as you say. But poor beasts who wish to prove their love can only grovel on the ground, and die.

Beauty and the Beast Poster Image by Erik Weems


* The original Beauty and the Beast story was written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and published in 1740.

Original Page July 2016 | Last updated Oct 22, 2018

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