Four words that transport any viewer, reader or listener into a story from long ago and a world far away. Four words that immediately indicate a fairy tale, but what are fairy tales? Stories told to children that serve to illuminate morals and ethics? Or is it some sort of whimsical fantasy that distracts us from the cruel, hash reality before us? If done well, and watched with a sense of childlike wonder, a fairy tale can be both, and few have done it as well as Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film, The Beauty and the Beast.
The Beauty and the Beast (Le belle et la bête), playing Wednesday, May 20 at Landmark Theatres Chez Artiste, brings Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 1756 fairy tale to the big screen for the first time, but certainly not the last.
Belle (Josette Day) is the middle of three sisters and one brother who have all fallen on hard times when their father’s (Marcel André) merchant ships are lost at sea. Father goes to town to try to secure some money, but comes up blank and with no money for room and board, is forced to make the journey back at night and becomes lost in the forest. Of course this is no ordinary forest and he stumbles upon a magical castle that opens its doors for him and caters to his every need. He spends the night in comfort, but on the way out he plucks a rose from a bush to bring back to Belle, only to discover the Beast (Jean Marais) waiting for him. The Beast informs him that his stay was free, but the rose will cost him his life, or one of his daughters, and bids him to return in a weeks time. When the family hears of the terrible transaction, Belle willingly offers herself to the Beast, promising to stay with him forever in the enchanted castle. The castle and all of its wonders will be Belle’s, but every night at 7 they will dine in the great hall and the Beast will ask her the same question, “Will you marry me?”
The characters are familiar and the story is typical, but unless you have seen Cocteau’s 1946 version of the story, you really haven’t seen the magic and wonder of a fairy tale on the screen. Cocteau sets him movie in the 18th Century, but The Beauty and the Beast takes place in a Freudian world, one that practically, and literally, smolders with sexual passion. Belle and Beast deliver their lines in breathless rapture while the animalistic instincts burning beneath the surface cause them to squirm and writhe. Cocteau made The Beauty and the Beast at the behest of his longtime lover, Marais, and the result is one of the most passionate loves letters set to celluloid.
Like all good fairy tales, The Beauty and the Beast isn’t just about one thing, but many. For Cocteau, this was his chance to bring his ideas and theories of cinema to light. Ideas that he would later state in the dialogue from The Testament of Orpheus (1960), “Film is a petrifying source of thought. A film resuscitates dead actions. A film permits one to give the appearance of reality to the irreal.”
That “irreal” is present in every aspect of the Beast’s castle, but it is most magical when Father enters the castle for the first time, noticing that the candelabras are all held by real human arms stuck through the walls. The statues aren’t statues, but also humans, following Father, and then Belle, everywhere they go. When Father enters the grand hall and sits at the table, a man’s arm emerges from the table and pours him a glass of wine from a pitcher. Not knowing what to make of it, Father lifts the tablecloth to find nothing underneath.
It is possible that The Beauty and the Beast contains just as many special effects as the modern-day action flick, but there is something endlessly enchanting about Cocteau’s. When Father enters the castle, the candelabras seemingly light themselves as he walks down the hallway. To achieve this effect, Cocteau simply had the actor walk backwards down the hallway and the lit candles were blown out once he passed them. When the film was then projected in reverse, the actor moves forward while the flames suddenly jump to life. It is a simple trick, but it is an elegant one and Cocteau uses it many times in The Beauty and the Beast, each one feeling as unworldly and magical as the last.
The Beauty and the Beast was a hit when it came out in 1946, and it continues to endure, being made, re-made, adapted and re-appropriated ever since. The basic story of The Beauty and the Beast speaks to a very human need, the need to be loved, and not for superficial reasons but for human ones. Beauty may be skin deep, but as the Beast tells Belle, “I have a good heart, but I am a monster.” Belle responds in kind, “There are men far more monstrous than you. Though they conceal it well.” An observation that was as true in 1946 as it is 69 years later.