Beauty and the Beast (1946, France)
Also referred to in its original French title as La Belle et la Bête, Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of this famous fairy tale by Jeanne- Marie Leprince de Beaumont is one of the most haunting, visually astonishing masterpieces to have ever graced the medium. Cocteau was an experimentalist in the many artforms he engaged with - literature, poetry, theater, artisan, and film director. His films have been described as experimental and securely among the avant garde. His Beauty and the Beast extends beyond the eerie, sometimes smoked-filled blackness of the Beast’s castle and the encircling wood and grasps at what appears to be nothingness. Yet what emerges from, at first glance, seems to be very little is a fairy tale film adaptation where the artistry of that film has never again been replicated. For those most familiar with the 1991 adaptation of the eponymous fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, note that this version is closer to the original fairy tale and that its tone is reflected in the dearth of piercing light.
The daughter of a struggling merchant (Marcel André), Belle (Josette Day) declines all the advances by the overconfident, macho Avenant (Jean Marais, whose character is the basis for Gaston in the Disney version) for marriage. Belle’s older brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair) is friends with Avenant and, along with her two other self-center sisters Félicie (Mila Parély) and Adélaide (Nane Germon), never understand her desires to stay home and care for their father. One day as their father loses his way in the forest; he spots a gloomy castle and - thanks to some magically-opening doors - enters. The grand hall is bathed in black with only a fireplace with blinking, moving human heads and candelabras held by outstretched, disembodied arms providing what little light there is. Dinner has been provided on the table and after spending an indeterminate amount of time sleeping after the meal, he exits. Recalling that Belle asked for a Rose when he arrived in town, the merchant plucks a rose from a tree. The Beast (Marais in his second of three roles) appears and - in his assertive, uncompromising French - tells the merchant he must prepare to die or instead have one of his daughters brought to the castle to atone for his crimes. It’s not much of a crime… but hey, it’s a fairy tale (before the film begins, a note by Cocteau asks the audience to suspend their disbelief and let their childlike sense of fantasy take flight).
This is not the Belle of the Disney Beauty and the Beast - this Belle has less agency and is far from assertive. There is the requisite aghast the first moment Belle gazes upon the Beast and the repulsion to his statements that at 7 PM every night he will ask for her hand in marriage for the duration of her indefinite stay. She is a prisoner behind these vine-strewn walls no matter the Beast’s assurances that no harm will come to her. Yet she sees that the Beast is a pathetic being who has become a friendly acquaintance - his outward appearance is deceiving, the creepiness of the castle not indicative of his innermost insecurities and aspirations. No matter what adaptation of Beauty and the Beast one encounters, that always remains the heart of the adaptation.
Smoke and tricks of light, makeup, and visual depth define all the scenes set in the Beast’s fortress of solitude - exteriors were shot at the Château de Raray (this link doesn’t contain a good photo of the place, but contains a structure seen occasionally throughout the film). It is impossible at times to ascertain how high the rooms are even when the camera is placed at such a low angle. In other instances, it is impossible to estimate the depth of Cocteau’s deep staging. Non-intrusive use of slow-motion makes it appear as if the characters are floating to and from the rooms. Movement is not heavy. Instead, it almost seems as if these scenes are but a slow dance in the dark. The production design by Christian Bérard and Lucien Carré are half of the film’s mystery and majesty. Their use of humans to hold the candelabras at the entrance and as statues, busts, or fixtures on the fireplace helps give the film an unsettling organic touch where special effects or other visual trickeries may have been attempted. One can only imagine how long those actors must have stood still in those unnatural positions to help breathe life into a few minutes of film. All of this, however - from the blackness which has audiences staring into infinity and human touch - was only possible because Cocteau had an extremely limited budget as they shot the film during the Nazi occupation of France. Stocks of fabrics, linens, and masonry commodities such as bricks, mortars, and stones all faced shortages in this era and - from the first minutes - these material restrictions are obvious. How Bérard, Carré, and Cocteau overcame these limitations to create a neobaroque fortress is almost as unbelievable as the film he was making. The alternating moments of surrealism may recall the collaborative films of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, but Bérard, Carré, and Cocteau have etched out an aesthetic that most likely will never be seen again.
The other half of the film’s greatness lies within the editing and black-and-white cinematography. Cocteau’s extremely selective soft lighting is similar yet dissimilar to the hard-lit lighting norms of film noir. The contrast between lights and darks are reminiscent of that subgenre, but the juxtaposed softness of the lighting is not. Clever uses of cuts and what I believe to be double exposure in one or two scenes (specifically, when Belle returns to the Beast’s castle using the mirror… though, it happened so quickly I’m unsure if this is the correct technique that should have been mentioned) allow Beauty and the Beast to be a visual wonder. Upon viewing these individual moments of brilliance, you don’t ask how did Cocteau and his magicians create that moment because it is likely your jaw is ajar, taking in these mystical images with a childlike sense of romance and wonder. If so, Cocteau has accomplished his stated goals.
Living among the busts of King Louis XIV and curtains dancing in the wind is the Beast himself. In later years, Marais recalled the excruciating makeup process to transform him into the character. A cast was designed for Marais and was assembled in three parts - “one down to the eyes, a second as far as the upper lip, and the third to the base of the neck” - resulting in a five-hour process to apply the makeup and to discard it. Though his appearance may frighten many children, note how realistic the makeup looks. Imagine putting your fingers through the hair and touching the Beast’s forehead. So convincing is the makeup that it almost begs to be touched. How expressive Marais could be through that mask - expressing sinister joy, disgust, and heartbreak with ease - is another cinematic miracle in itself.
There is another facet of Beauty and the Beast's greatness: Georges Auric’s sumptuous, harmonics-laden score. Having only previously scored René Clair’s half-musical À Nous la Liberté (1931), Auric was relatively inexperienced in film scoring. Near the end of 1945 and hurriedly finishing the film, Cocteau approached Auric late during production to score the film. He did not give any directions on how to compose the music. As a result, Auric dispensed of character-driven or plot-driven motific methods of scoring (innovated by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, among others) with a composition more suited for a ballet than a film. In fact, Auric had composed numerous ballets before working on Cocteau’s film. Ballets depend on mostly two things to create an atmosphere - the production design and the music. Thus, Auric’s Impressionistic score exists on its own plane - according to Naxos Music Library, Auric’s hell of an orchestration includes wordless choir, strings occasionally playing harmonics, and a limited wind and brass section - and begins to go where few Impressionist composers ever dared venture: atonality. There are few compositional commonalities between cues, which serves to further separate Auric’s score from the film. This is not to say Auric’s score is plain bad; it is but the opposite. Auric’s score sounds and feels ethereal, detached from ordinary corporealism. In layman’s terms, the mood his score generates - despite the lack of direction from Cocteau - is perfect.
La Belle et la Bête stands alone. It is rare to see a more artistically accomplished effort. Though most of its ingenuity may have been by circumstance, the film is so magnificent on so many levels it would be difficult to describe to the uninitiated without venturing into overstatement. Like the Beast, there is far more to the film than what appears on first observation and cognizance. The number of enchantments that this film can cast on the unsuspecting wanderer is incalculable and the effects of those magics know no bounds.
My rating: 10/10
^ Based on my personal imdb rating. Beauty and the Beast is the one hundred and twelfth feature-length or short film I have rated a ten on imdb.