(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Jean Cocteau reinvented the fairy tale for the cinema with Beauty and The Beast (La Belle Et La Bête), an enchanting, exquisitely realized vision of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fantasy romance. With all manner of unparalleled visual effects and tricks, Cocteau makes the spellbinding tale of transformative love both ethereal and tangible, and his indelible images haunt the cinema like no others.
– From Production Notes
Beauty and the Beast is pure magic. No, I’m not talking about the animated Disney film or its recent live-action version. I’m not talking about the Faerie Tale Theatre episode based on this either, let alone the visually stunning but emotionally empty French remake that came out a few years ago. I’m talking about a true original: Cocteau’s 1946 version of this fairy tale, which was/is/always will be an anomaly in cinema history.
As a film it transcends suspension of disbelief, telling a 270-year-old story (or 4000 years, depending on the source) in a way that’s part children’s fable, part dream language. The story is rather simple, introduced by this text from the director:
Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things.
I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s “Open Sesame”:
Once upon a time…
From there, the action unfolds in a rather straight-forward way. A widowed merchant (Marcel André) lives with his four children in the country. His son and two eldest daughters are dissolute, selfish and haughty, leaving his youngest daughter, Belle (Josette Day), to keep the house in order and do all of the work. When he receives word that some of his cargo has been recovered after being lost at sea, he departs to claim it and asks his daughters if they would like any gifts from town. The requests from the two eldest are expensive and extravagant (dresses, jewels, exotic animals). Belle requests a rose, to which her sisters nearly die laughing.
However, it isn’t a laughing matter. This request for simple beauty leads her father to mortal danger (ancient spoiler alert).
Beauty and The Beast has been told many ways, but the set-up yields the same conflict. In this version of the tale Belle’s Father gets lost in the forest while riding home, happening upon a quiet and seemingly abandoned estate. While looking for its owner he discovers it’s enchanted. Cocteau portrays this through simple camera tricks and a rather haunting production design, using parts of the human body (faces, hands, arms) as the decor and furniture. They silently interact with Belle’s father, inviting him to eat, rest and take shelter in the grand hall.
It’s when he walks through the garden and retrieves a rose that things go south. He is confronted by The Beast (Jean Marais), who sentences him to death for stealing “what I love most in all the world.” He must sacrifice himself or send one of his daughters in his place. Belle’s father returns home with this weighing on him, feeling grave and shaken from meeting this “monster.”
It’s hard to gauge how the appearance of The Beast effected an audience in 1946. I’m sure that his first reveal startled people because Cocteau doesn’t capture it in a grand, operatic way. All of sudden he is there, as if he had been there all along. He is human but not, a fur-covered creature dressed in finery with a raspy, feline voice. His appearance is modeled on a lion with a mane, fangs and moveable ears. It’s an amazing feat of prosthetics and make-up, but was a full commitment for Marais. It took five hours for him to put on, after which he couldn’t eat solids, and was incredibly painful to take off.
In spite of everything, Marais’ performance as The Beast is the heart of the film. He is an intensely tortured, sympathetic and devoted creature, which must have been hard to portray while being so uncomfortable and hidden. Nevertheless he portrays every nuance of what he is feeling, and when he falters or suffers it’s painful to watch.
What’s more, it’s only one of three roles Marais plays in the film. He plays the haughty and brutish Avenant, the best friend of Belle’s brother who wants Belle all to himself, proposing marriage and propositioning her no matter how many times she refuses him. His declarations of love are stilted and comical, but that’s kind of the point. In comparison to The Beast, he may be classically handsome but his intentions are to possess her, nothing more. He is as empty as his promises.
His third character is the Prince Charming who appears at the end of the film, the physical manifestation of the spell being broken. By then Marais’ performance of The Beast had made him so sympathetic that it was reported that Greta Garbo yelled at the screen, “Give me back my beast!” Likewise, Marlene Dietrich (who accompanied Cocteau to the premiere) asked him, “Where is my beautiful beast?”
It turned out that Cocteau had done this on purpose and explained his intentions to the press:
My story would concern itself mainly with the unconscious obstinacy with which women pursue the same type of man, and expose the naiveté of the old fairy tales that would have us believe that this type reaches its ideal in conventional good looks. My aim would be to make the Beast so human, so sympathetic, so superior to men, that his transformation into Prince Charming would come as a terrible blow to Beauty, condemning her to a humdrum marriage and a future that I summed up in that last sentence of all fairy tales: “And they had many children.”
I was therefore obliged to deceive both the public and Beauty herself. Slyly, and with much effort, I persuaded my cameraman Alekan to shoot Jean Marais as the Prince in as saccharine a style as possible. The trick worked. When the picture was released, letters poured in from matrons, teen-age girls and children, complaining to me and Marais about the transformation. They mourned the disappearance of the Beast—the same Beast who terrified them so at the time when Madame Leprince de Beaumont wrote the tale.
That last observation is true. Although it becomes clear that The Beast doesn’t want to harm Belle, she is clearly in a hostage situation. When she arrives she is overtaken by the strange magic of the place, but once she is confronted by The Beast it proves too shocking. Assuming she is going to die at his hands, she collapses on the spot.
It unclear whether The Beast takes pity on her or has been expecting this all along. Maybe both. He doesn’t kill her. He carries her into the house where she is magically re-dressed into the finest clothes and placed in a lavishly decorated quarters. When she wakes up he tells her they will meet in the grand hall for dinner each night, and every night he will ask her to marry him.
Here’s what I find interesting: the tale of Beauty and The Beast isn’t only about breaking a spell, but was told to ready girls and young women for marriage. For thousands of years women haven’t had a choice, often thrust into situations where their fathers are in a bargain with their husbands, placing them into a new life with a complete stranger. They are at the mercy of two men they are obligated to be devoted to. In this case Belle is devoted to both, which was the societal ideal. Still, it doesn’t make anything easier or less frightening.
Things become even more complicated because the story isn’t so much about obligation as it is about realizing obligation doesn’t foster love. During Belle’s stay she discovers The Beast’s true nature. He is troubled by his situation almost as much as she is. His shame and loneliness permeates everything He describes himself as “an animal” and “a monster.” He has urges to hunt and kill the deer near his home, which seems to tax and horrify him. Belle spies him after one of these episodes, watching the spilled blood evaporate from his paws. So does he, just as perplexed and disturbed.
With time Belle comes to care for him, seeing past his troubled facade. Likewise The Beast’s feelings for Belle prove that he can love someone enough to put them first. This is the moment where the story deviates from a fable about an arranged/forced marriage. The Beast releases her from the situation despite knowing he might die from a broken heart. As a token of his trust he gives her the key to the source of his magic, hoping it will ensure her return.
This freedom enables Belle to make her own decisions and sort out her own feelings. It is only after she returns to her father’s side that she realizes she how much she cares for The Beast. “Your goodness will cost you dearly, my Belle,” her father cautions. “Father, that monster is good,” she replies. Tears run from her eyes that turn into diamonds, a part of the magic she has brought home.
With the exception of her father, the tables have been turned. Her siblings and Avenant attempt to imprison Belle with obligations. With time it becomes clear they want her to remain their housekeeper and eventually become Avenant’s wife. In the meantime they collude to return to the Beast’s estate and rob him of his magic and riches, stealing the key from Belle when she isn’t looking.
Of course The Beast waits to see if she’ll return. When her family manage to keep her longer than her promise, he loses all hope and falls apart. By the time Belle realizes this and returns it’s too late. She finds him dying by a stream and begs him to live. “Belle, if I were a man, perhaps I could do as you say,” he says. “But poor beasts who wish to prove their love can only grovel on the ground and die.”
The love of something or someone can transcend a lot of things, but in Beauty and The Beast it is a herald of good fortune, transcending death and boundaries. It’s worth noting that Marais and Cocteau weren’t only collaborators but lovers, and adapting Beauty and The Beast for the screen was Marais’ idea. It’s a tale that plays against conventions and prompts people to root for an unlikely couple because of the way they end up feeling about each other rather than how they appear.
“Love can turn a man into a beast,” the Prince tells Belle after the spell is broken. “But love can also make an ugly man handsome.” The way I see it, it’s a gentle reminder that love isn’t about bodies and faces as much as what is within a person. That’s what ultimately draws and keeps people together, and although this film is open to many different interpretations, that’s what it means to me.