Juraj Herz, whose brilliant Cremator (1968) is a very dark comedy about Nazism, wartime occupation, and the Holocaust, ten years later would make perhaps the most beauteous film ever that’s drawn from fairy-tale material. This is Panna a netvor (The Virgin and the Monster), from Mme Leprince de Beaumont’s eighteenth-century “La Belle et la Bête.” It is not, like Jean Cocteau’s great 1946 version, a thrilling allegory of the Occupation and Liberation of France; it is Czech, after all. But there are flickers of political symbolism all the same—these, pertaining to the shadow of Communism hiding behind, ironically, Julie’s father’s financial ruin: the destitution into which a burning bridge tosses the widower and his three daughters. Julie, the Beauty of the piece, pays the price to liberate her father and sisters; in the main, however, she falls in love with the gigantically bird-headed monster who instantly fell in love with her and is keeping her in his dark, labyrinthine castle in hopes she will take the leap of faith that will free the handsome prince from his monstrous “imprisonment” and make them both a human—well, fairy-tale—couple at last.
With the glow of soft candlelight and other golden visual punctuation, this is a very dark film that is also warm, sensuous and mysterious because it is so full of the possibility, promise and, finally, reality of love. Julie has free will and, exerting it, passes through a castle door to the instant alternative reality currently occupied by the rest of her family. It is, of course, this freedom that makes falling in love with the beast possible. Here, too, Herz is reflecting on Communist Czechoslovakia.
Jirí Macháne’s gorgeous, dreamy color cinematography, sometimes showing voluminous mists of gray, is the year’s best.
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