Director: Jean Cocteau.
Starring: Jean Marais, Josette Day, Mila Parély. France 1946. 95 mins. French with English subtitles.
Widely heralded as one of the very best screen incarnations of this much-loved and much-adapted tale, Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version remains for me the most innovative, magical and beguiling of them all. Over seventy years down the line, its dreamlike beauty, economical narration, top-notch performances and startling visual ingenuity ensure its enduring reputation.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Cocteau. Legend has it that when asked what he would rescue if his house were burning he responded, “I would carry away the fire.” I like that: to value the magical, powerful and mysterious above all else. To me this crystallises the essence of his art, propagated in a dizzying array of fields including poetry, painting, novels, theatre, opera, ballet, sculpture and film. Its clearest expression arguably comes in La Belle Et La Bête, which stands alongside Orphée (1950) as one of his great cinematic masterpieces.
Cocteau’s version draws directly from Mme. Leprince de Beaumont’s influential 1754 retelling of what would become one of the best-known fairy tales of all time, adapted in its turn from a 1740 story by Mme. de Villeneuve, and with roots stretching at least as far back as the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche. De Beaumont’s coming-of-age parable of the passage from childhood innocence and filial devotion to sexual discovery and eventual matrimony served, as many scholars have noted, an instructive lesson that an initially unappealing prospective husband might indeed hold hidden charms. Guidance for young ladies was De Beaumont’s stock in trade. After all, she was an English governess.
But for Cocteau (who can be seen writing the credits on a chalkboard at the start of the film) the story also accommodated contemporary allegories. His project was conceived during the Nazi occupation of Paris: “five intolerable years; five years of hatred, terror, waking up to nightmares; five years of shame, of mud that has spattered our very souls.” He wished to prove through film art that, like the noble prince whose accursed mask can only be lifted by faith and love, France could shine again and “still do battle against giant forces”.
It’s astonishing that the film reached such a pinnacle of accomplishment when one considers its troubled production, plagued by meagre post-war resources as well as accidents and illness among cast and crew. Its arduous progress brought more personal metaphors into play, as Cocteau chronicled in his diaries. Suffering numerous maladies, he wrote of his own beastly disfigurement, “My face has become an itching carapace of cracks, scabs, gulleys. I must forget this mask and live underneath it with all my strength.” Beneath this unsightly veil lay not only a poet seeking truth and beauty but also, as several commentators have observed, an older man in love with his young muse and occasional paramour, the handsome lead actor Jean Marais.
Sometimes transmuting, sometimes transcending these struggles, La Belle Et La Bête shimmers and scintillates with sensuousness and exoticism, discovery and wonder. The Beast’s chateau brims over with mysteries and marvels. Bewitched and bewitching, even its candelabra and marble statues ripple with preternatural life as Cocteau lavishes magical effect upon magical effect with an ingenuity still fresh and surprising to modern audiences for whom CGI has dulled the blade of cinematic cunning. This is the realm of enchantment indeed. Take from it what you dare.
La Belle Et La Bête screens as part of The Enchanted Screen: A Season of Folk and Fairytale Films and Vintage Sundays on Sunday 19 November.Find your cinema and book tickets.