The two most magical films in existence may be Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921) and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931), the first one light-magical, and the second, darkly magical. Both came out of Germany, although Dreyer, one of cinema’s three or four greatest artists, was a Dane; both films fully exploit the almost primitive capacity of cinema to realize strange, dreamlike worlds of the imagination. Destiny is, perhaps, the most spiritually refined film ever made, while Vampyr remains cinema’s most profound study of humanity’s mortal anxiety, the twilight where the soul of the living touches the outermost garment of the regions of the dead. Regrettably, few if any films nowadays are adventurous enough to explore this kind of emotional or spiritual territory, and special effects use of late has crashed into the crass and blatant, quelling the imagination rather than delighting or inspiring it. (Advanced computer technology may have sounded the death knell for imaginative special effects in films.) Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête), based on the eighteenth-century fairy tale by Mme. Leprince de Beaumont, is an example of the kind of truly magical film that, for whatever combination of reasons, no longer seems possible, or is no longer attempted by current filmmakers, with only the fewest exceptions, the Brothers Quay and—Muses, keep visiting him!—David Lynch among them. Too, it’s a film that keeps looking better and better.
Cocteau’s Beauty derives from a complex of motives. To understand these, one must understand a little its maker, the French poet, painter, playwright and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. His father, a lawyer, committed suicide when Cocteau was not yet ten years old; the event proved a training ground for him in human vulnerability while throwing his immediate circumstance into chaos (school expulsion; running away from home). Another, equal blow awaited Cocteau: after serving in World War I, he fell in love with Raymond Radiguet, the future author of Le diable au corps (Devil in the Flesh), whose death at twenty from typhoid freshly shattered Cocteau, addicting him to opium and resulting in his hospitalization in 1929. But Cocteau fell in love again, with Jean Marais, about fifteen years his junior, in the 1930s; thereafter, his stage and film involvements existed in part to show off Marais in the best possible light. Cocteau had long been identified with the progressive and the avant-garde when he made an error in judgment during the German Occupation in the 1940s: he praised in print a fascist artist, Arno Becker. The praise may have been heartfelt, or it might have been in nervous response to the fact that the Vichy government was branding Cocteau as “decadent.” Perhaps, then, he was trying to be conciliatory for the sake of professional survival. If the latter is the case, the opposite of the aim he sought now fell upon him as the press used the occasion of his slip to condemn him for his homosexuality. The Germans shut down his plays. After the war, therefore, Cocteau was ripe for rehabilitating his image, and if he could do this while at the same time giving Marais a tremendous role, all the better. The result was Beauty and the Beast.
Fellow members of the avant-garde chided Cocteau for what they regarded as the apolitical nature of his work. Cocteau thus opens the film with a written and signed defense of art which reconnects adults to their childhoods and to the wonder of childhood. Cocteau here is being devious and ironic; Beauty and the Beast is both historical allegory and a hymn to freedom. It renders the fairy tale in such terms that the film becomes, allegorically and symbolically, about the Occupation and the Liberation of France. It’s a national work—an epic—in addition to being a highly poetic and personal one. And it did the trick, restoring Cocteau to his cultural throne, now additionally elevated, in a grateful nation. Elsewhere (such as in the United States), Beauty and the Beast came to epitomize, even define, the soul of France.
Cocteau’s passionate love story can stand on its own, but the film’s great power derives from its thrilling allegory. The Beast is trapped between two modes of existence, that of a free man and that of a beast (to be exact, a big, upright cat) which, one of nature’s hunters, even as it approaches the woman it loves finds its quarry, a slain deer, at its feet. Neither-here-nor-there, this being-one-thing-but-desirous-of-being-fully-something-else: from this Cocteau fashions the Beast into an embodiment of France’s Occupation. In love with Belle, that is, Beauty, the Beast suffers afresh an unfree nature despite owning the Enchanted Castle and its spectacular grounds and the trappings of wealth, that is, the magnificence of France. One can go mad trying to determine to what degree, if any, the filmmaker was conscious of his decision to find in the fairy tale such vibrantly recent historical matter, but without doubt the Beast’s predicament evolved from Cocteau’s artistic use of it as the perfect symbol. (One suspects that on this one glorious occasion Cocteau submitted entirely to the Muse, since selfconsciousness so often mars even his otherwise estimable work.) The Beast is a majestic creature, its emotions as it pines for Belle suggesting the anguish of a fettered France recalling her freedom and the enormous struggle by which that freedom had been achieved. The Beast’s shame at being a beast is the withering projection of Occupied France’s monumental shame, over both the Occupation itself and those collaborationist elements that additionally burdened the national psyche. The Beast calls up these dire national associations effortlessly. This is not, elsewhere, the case with Cocteauvian symbolism pertaining to the creative process (such as in the 1930 Blood of a Poet), which can seem too determined on his part, too literary. In Beauty and the Beast, the primary symbols seem to spring up naturally, and those pertaining to artistic process are pleasantly subdued amidst the fabulous atmosphere. While Orphée’s dips into the underworld (1949) constitute Cocteau’s most brilliant (and darkest) flights of imagination, all in all, in film, Beauty and the Beast is his most satisfying, fully realized piece of work.
No less perfect a symbol as the Beast is Beauty, who, through the agency of her knit-browed suitor, Avenant, also played by Marais, is connected to the Beast. Belle (Josette Day, wonderful) is imprisoned in two ways. One of these finds her the prisoner of an hilariously cluttered domesticity dominated by two selfish sisters who treat her with contempt as they might Cinderella, in part because her humility has made her their father’s favorite. For all her beauty, Belle is something of a drudge, her existence one of self-sacrifice so that her sisters may indulge their vanity; she is the embodiment of Christian sacrifice, in her case, not for the sake of her sisters, who are immediate beneficiaries, but for the sake of her father, whose life is made simpler by the subordinate way in which she chooses to behave. In this sense, Belle parodies bourgeois self-rationalization, much as her sisters parody the pursuit of bourgeois materialism by asking their father for every nonsensical thing under the sun (such as furs, jewels and a pet monkey) while Belle asks only for a thing of simple, natural beauty: a rose. Cocteau, here adhering to the original story, is being more than ironic when, on a business trip attempting to save their home and possessions (their bourgeois existence), the girls’ father is condemned to death by the Beast when he stops to snap off a rose from a bush on the grounds of the Enchanted Castle; he means for us to grasp that Belle’s request is, beneath the appearance of virtue, inseparable from her sisters’ bourgeois motives. One props up and rationalizes the other. Thus the Beast asks the father for any of the three daughters to take his place at the Castle in order to spare his—the father’s—life. It scarcely matters which.
The other way in which Belle is a prisoner, inextricable from the other, is harder to define. Let us say she isn’t fully herself. She is the prisoner of her appearance of virtue; she is the victim that France has become under the Occupation. She is the still perfect appearance of France cut off from the living, breathing free soul of France. It is in this context that numerous shots, particularly at the Enchanted Castle and on its grounds, comparing her (within the same frames) with statues and sculptured figures are best understood. There is irony in the fact that some of the statues and other sculptures are animated—at least as much “human” as Belle herself; for, very often, Belle appears passive and elegantly statuesque. Belle, then, isn’t exactly, or fully, human. Freedom is necessary to complete her humanity. At present, she is under constraint—the constraints of history, on one level; the constraints of the fairy tale, of art, on another. The film ends with the deaths of both the Beast and Avenant, signaling the rebirth of France in the form of a dashing, handsome prince (again, Marais—here, as beautiful as Cocteau can make him*) with whom, released at last from her constrained and statuesque existence, Beauty suddenly sparks into warm, breathing life. The film is profoundly moving precisely because of the political and recent historical associations it activates.
In addition, the film is formally wondrous, a visual poem, especially inside and about the Enchanted Castle. The staircase indoors seems to appear from out of the darkness enrobing it just to guide Belle’s light steps up or down; outdoors, an open pathway cloaked by massive, exquisitely detailed foliage evokes the engravings of Gustave Doré illustrating fairy tales. The sensuous slow motion applied to Belle’s first entrance into the castle, with its transformation of her heavy outfit into seemingly eternal waves and folds, is among the film’s most beauteous techniques; but all things wait on the film’s most ecstatic moment: at the end, the slight dip down to the ground and then the flight to the heavens as the Prince takes his Beauty to his castle, where her sisters will attend to her for a change. It’s a moment fitting the monumental theme—France’s liberation—to which it’s attuned.
Cocteau’s collaborators richly contribute to the film’s triumphant character and beauty: black-and-white cinematographer Henri Alëkan (who forty-one years later would apply his skills to another magical film, Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire); production designer Christian Bérard, and art directors René Moulaërt and Lucien Carré; Georges Auric, whose original score is one of the finest ever composed; Marcel Escoffier and Antonio Castillo, whose costumes for Belle and Beast, and Hagop Arakelian, whose makeup for the Beast constitute the highest attainments in these fields, without exception; and René Clément, whose technical assistance enriched Cocteau’s ideas. (The year before, Clément had made the extraordinary neorealist film about the Resistance, Battle of the Rails, and he brought Alëkan with him from that.)
The 1991 animated film version, by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, borrows many details from the Cocteau film that aren’t in the original story. However, it’s a vastly inferior film whose postmodernist Belle becomes the strained vehicle for cute, arch feminism. And, of course, Robby Benson is no Jean Marais.
* Depending on who is telling the story, either Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich is nonetheless supposed to have said in a movie theater when the Prince takes its place, “Give me back my Beast!”
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Wanted to let you know that your review helped me understand the context of two children’s books based on the movie. I got an ‘A’.