"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 the beast 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 simplicity, and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood's open sesame: 'Once upon a time...'"
Those are the touching words from the great French artist Jean Cocteau in the beginning of one of the most magical and enchanting films of all time, Beauty and the Beast. This was before the classic story of Beauty and the Beast became a household marketing name by Disney, where every little girl around the world knew the character of Belle, bought the toys and games, and its characters were signing autographs in Orlando. Before the days of CGI, modern effects and creature makeup, Cocteau magically brought to the screen a classic fairy tale along with Cocteau's devised camera trickery (which was done a lot by reversing the film) and astonishing special effects. The director Jean Cocteau did not necessarily look at himself as a film director, but more a poet, painter, sculpture and a surrealist who wrote plays and novels. Cocteau adapted the classic French tale at a time shortly after the suffering of World War II where people wanted to escape from the bleak horror's of reality. Those who are familiar with the 1991 Disney cartoon will recognize some of the basic elements of the story, but the tone is completely different. This is not a "children's movie," as Cocteau uses bold and haunting images along with striking Freudian symbols and themes that delve into the darker repressed emotions of its characters.
The opening credits are shown written on a chalk board as the beginning of this film starts as a man named Avenant shoots arrows through a house window to get the attention of the woman he loves. Her name is Belle but her two wicked sisters Adelaide and Felicie; rather force Belle to stay inside and do house chores while they go out on the town. Her sisters are selfish and cruel and treat their sister Belle as someone who is an inferior, and her brother gives her no love or respect as well.
The first shot of Belle shows her reflection as she is scrubbing the floor at her home. Belle (Josette Day) is suddenly interrupted by her brother's friend the arrogant but good-hearted Avenant played by Jean Marais. He straight out tells her, "Belle, you aren't made to be a servant. You mustn't go slaving day and night for your sisters." Avenant then proposes to her but she quickly refuses not because she doesn't love him but because her father is sick after he suffered a huge loss with his ships and his fortune out at sea.
She must remain a maid to help her father, because her brother doesn't seem to care and her sister's care more about high society and one day marrying a wealthy man. Suddenly Belle's father arrives home with great news. He announces to everyone that he has come into great fortune and has to travel and pick it up the very next day.
The next morning when leaving he asks his children what gifts they would like him to bring back and the sisters say, "bring us back some brocade dresses! Jewels, fans and ostrich feathers! I want the whole town to die of envy!" When Belle says, "Father, bring me a rose, there aren't any around her," her sisters mock at her request. That evening Belle's roguish brother Ludovic signs a contract from a moneylender which allows him to sue his father if his father can't pay the debt Ludovic has brought upon the family.
When Belle's father arrives to his destination he is told his fortune was seized to clear debts and sadly is forced to return home through the forest that night empty-handed. While Belle's father rides through the forest he gets lost through the fog and eventually finds himself upon a large castle.
The bushes magically spread apart to greet his path and the doors also open up to welcome him as if the castle was its own living force. Curious Belle's father enters the castle and is guided by enchanted candelabra's which are held by live like arms and hands that point him in the right direction.
They guide him to a laden dinner table near a fireplace where he sits down with magical hands pouring him something to drink. There are also numerous statues with faces that are alive and their head and eyes move as they watch this stranger enter their castle. He checks under the table and looks around to see if there is any trickery going on, but he can't seem to find any.
He eventually falls asleep in the chair because of the long ride but suddenly is awakened by a loud roar from outside. Belle's father wanders outside around the castle grounds and sees a beautiful garden full of roses. Remembering that Belle asked for a rose, he plucks a rose from a tree which suddenly makes the Beast (who is also played by Jean Marais) appear from behind him.
The Beast is furious at him for stealing a rose saying, "so, my dear sir, you steal my roses...the things I love most in all the world. Your luck has gone from bad to worse. You could have taken anything except my roses. The punishment for this simple theft...is death!" Belle's father begs for his life and says, "sir, I didn't know. I meant no harm. My daughter asked me to bring her a rose." The Beast says, "Don't address me as 'sir'. I'm called the Beast!"
The Beast then gives him a alternative: If he has one of his daughters come back and take his place to pay for his debt; his life will be spared. If his daughters decline the offer he must promise to return. The Beast offers his majestic horse "Magnificent" to guide him through the forest back home. Belle's father is then told the magic words to make Magnificent start riding which are, "Go where I'm going Magnificent. Go, go, go!"
When Belle's father arrives home he puts Magnificent in the stable and explains the situation to his family and then giving Belle the rose she asked for. One of her sisters says, "That's what happens when a fool asks to bring her a rose." Both of Belle's sisters are cowards and don't want to take their father's place to save his life, so Belle agrees to go and take her father's place believing it's her fault. Avenant doesn't want Belle to go because of his love for her and says he will kill the Beast but Belle's father tells him the Beast's power is too great.
That morning Belle quietly sneaks out with Magnificent and rides off to the castle. When finally arriving she goes inside and starts walking down a long hallway with a beautiful shot of white curtains blowing from the open windows, which gives the film a ghost like supernatural power. Suddenly Belle finds herself gliding by a spiritual force pushing her through the hallways to the end to find a room already made up for her, with the blankets opening up to welcome her in.
Belle finds a mirror near her bed which whispers to her when viewing "I am your mirror Belle. Reflect in your heart for me, and I will reflect for you." The mirror is a magic mirror and can allow her to see anything she pleases. When she finally sees the Beast when walking outside on the property she faints because of his grotesque look and collapses to the ground. The Beast gently picks her up and carries her to her attended room and places her in her bed.
When she wakes up that evening she finds the monster of the Beast looking at her beauty. He turns away ashamed of his ghastly look and tells her, "Belle, you mustn't look into my eyes. You needn't fear. You will never see me, except each evening at 7:00 when you will dine." At dinner Belle is told by the Beast that she is in equal command by him and he says to her, "there is no master here but you. Everything here is at your command."
He looks at Belle as she turns away horrified. "I disgust you," he says. "You find me repulsive." She honestly replies, "I cannot lie to you Beast." The Beast then says, "I have a good heart...but I am a monster." Belle tells him, "There are men far more monstrous than you." The Beast then tells her, "I shall appear every evening at 7:00. Then, before taking my leave, I will ask you one question. Always the same question. Belle, will you be my wife?" Belle says no and he is hurt at her rejection as he then leaves her to dine alone.
That evening Belle curiously walks around the castle walls as she suddenly hears a horrific rour. She hides behind one of the statues in the hallway as she watches the Beast appear down the hall steaming full of smoke. When the Beast enter's Belle's room to bring her a gift and she's nowhere to be found he thinks she escaped.
Belle appears from behind him asking what he is doing in her room. He holds out his hand as a pearl necklace magically flies into his hands telling her he has brought her a gift. "Get out!" She demands and the Beast leaves. Days pass and Belle grows more accustomed of the castle and more fond of the Beast, with him treating her like a princess, giving her jewelry, luxerous gowns and freedom to roam around the castle and property.
But every evening at 7 she still refuses marriage when asked. "I know I'm terrible to look at," the Beast says while the two are having a beautiful walk outside the castle. The Beast then asks her if there is another man who asked her hand in marriage, and Belle says yes and that she loves him. Broken hearted by the truth the Beast runs off into the night.
Over the next few weeks Belle observes the Beast's ways of life. She watches him catch and eat deer and drink from the lake like the animal he is. Yet she sees a sweetness behind his grotesque exterior, and she learns to care. She feels his disgust for himself because of his ugliness and the pain he has to endure. There is a sad scene where she is horrified by watching the beast in pain and torment burning in smoke after he slaughtered an animal to eat. I belief the smoke is symbolic for his guilt of the monster he sadly is, but unfortunately is something he can't control.
One day Belle decides to look into the magic mirror and the mirror shows her father deathly ill. She becomes depressed and the Beast can't bear to see her like that. She begs the Beast to let her go to see her father and the Beast says, "If I accept, do you swear to return in a week?" She swears and he eventually grants her permission to leave for a week only if she keeps her promise or he will die of grief. Before she leaves the Beast shows her Diana's Pavilion where it is the one place in his domain where no one can enter.
He says to her, "All I possess. I possess the power of magic. But my true riches are in that pavilion, and one can only enter with a golden key. Here it is Belle. I give you the greatest possible proof of trust that one can give in this world. After my death, you will be safely out of danger and my riches will be yours." He also gives Belle a magical glove that can transport her wherever she wishes. "Remember your promise." he tells her. "Farewell, Belle."
Belle then uses the glove which magically has her appear in her father's bedridden room, where her visit restores him to health. When recovering her father asks how the Beast is treating her and she says, "He suffers. One half of him is in constant struggle with the other half. He's more cruel to himself then he is to human beings."
She tells her father she must again return to the beast saying, "If I ran away, I'd cause great harm to him...and to you. Father...that monster is good." Her father sees that Belle cares for the Beast and when she starts crying her tears come out as diamonds. She gives them to her father and tells him to keep those for himself.
Sadly Belle finds her family now living in poverty with all there possessions being taken away, having never recovered from Ludovic's deal with the moneylender. When her sisters see Belle as a new woman who now is beautiful and rich they are jealous of her. Adelaide and Felicie steal her golden key and devise a plan to turn Ludovic and Avenant against the Beast but not before distracting Belle and trying to get her to not return to the Beast's castle as long as possible.
Avenant and Ludovic devise a plan of their own: Ludovic wants to use that key so he can get inside the Diana's Pavilion to steal the Beast's treasures for himself, and Avenant wants to kill the Beast because of his jealousy that Belle actually cares for that monster.
When Avenant and Belle's brother and sisters are in the barn together deviously going over their plan they see that Magnificent has arrived from the castle; probably sent by the Beast to have Belle come back to him. Avenant knows this and Ludovic and him decide to ride Magnificent themselves; knowing it will take them to the Beast's castle.
Belle finally realizes her key to the Pavillion is gone and he now understands why her sisters tried keeping her there; and looking into the magic mirror she can see the Beast is now dying. She quickly uses her magic glove and transports herself to the Beast's castle frantically shouting out, "My Beast!"
When she finally comes upon him he's already near death from her not returning on time and for breaking her promise. The Beast is dying of a broken heart because of Belle breaking her promise to him. Belle arriving to his dying side cries out, "I am the monster!!!" Before the Beast dies he tells Belle, "poor beasts who wish to prove their love can only grovel on the ground...and die."
While this moment is happening you see Avenant and Belle's brother trying to break into the Diana's Pavilion with the key Belle's sister stole from her. Suddenly Avenant gets shot down by an arrow from one of the Beast's living statues who is protecting the treasure. Before Avenant dies he, himself transforms into a Beast.
Because of Belle's last loving look towards the Beast the spell upon the Beast is broken and he reverts back to life as Prince Ardent who is now cured. "The Beast is no more. It was I, Belle. My parents didn't believe in magic spirits, so the spirits took their revenge through me. I could only be saved by a loving look."
Prince Ardent and Belle embrace, then fly away to his kingdom where she will be his Queen, and where her father will stay with them and Belle's evil sisters will carry the train of her gown.
Beauty and the Beast, the first film of Cocteau’s own since The Blood of a Poet, and his finest poem since then, is by general consent one of the most enchanting pictures ever made, and its production was one of those undertakings that, with a kind of general benevolence, shed luster on all its participants. It brought new accolades to Mme Leprince de Beaumont, the eighteenth-century author of the fairy tale. Jean Marais had suggested the film; for him, his face masked by the fur and the fangs of the Beast, his body padded and swathed in velvet, his hands made into claws, it was his triumph of acting over physique. Lovely Josette Day played Beauty, the good country girl, with an intelligence and a dancer’s grace that Cocteau praised without reserve; and she, the actresses who play her wicked sisters, and the rest of the cast are outstanding in the way they speak, move, wear their clothes, and form tableaux à la Vermeer and Le Nain. The Gustave Doré sumptuousness of Christian Bérard’s costumes and decor is reminiscent, not in style but in spirit and success, of Bakst’s lavishness in ballet. In Bérard, Cocteau had found a new fellow master of fantasy, an antimodern, neobaroque successor to the Picasso of Parade; and the high style of his famous perspective of human arms emerging from draperies to grasp lighted candelabras that materialize in the air, the moving eyes of his dusky, smoke-breathing caryatids, his pair of Louis XIV marble busts of Turks, lend fantastic cinema a nobility that had been previously hinted at—one can only mention the earlier films again—in The Blood of a Poet. Henri Alekan gave the photography the tone Cocteau wanted, the “soft gleam of hand-polished old silver,” particularly exquisite in the swaying sheer white curtains, in Beauty’s tear that turns into a pearl. The most haunting feature is Marais’ Beast mask, a remarkable creation, so appealingly beastlike as to be more “becoming” than his lover’s-postcard transfiguration as Prince Charming at the end of the film. In his autobiography, Marais talks about it:
For my mask, we went to Pontet, an elderly gentleman, a real genius, one of those men who make you realize that one can be passionately in love with one’s work whatever it may be. He devoted a great deal of thought to how the mask could be given the look of my own face and not interfere with its mobility. He made a cast and worked on it endlessly. I often went to see him with Moulouk, and the dog taught us things: the unevenness and shagginess and spottiness of the fur that make it seem so alive are due to Moulouk. M. Pontet made my mask like a wig, hair on a webbing base, but 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 . . . It took me five hours to make up—that meant thirteen hours a day in the studio. Because of the fangs attached to my teeth, all I could eat was mush, and that by the spoonful. Between takes, I scarcely dared open my mouth, lest the makeup become unglued; no one understood what I said, and that exasperated me.
“In my opinion,” wrote Cocteau, “one must have Marais’ passion for his work and his devotion to his dog to persevere as he did in deserting the human race for the animal race.”
The idea of the film was hard to sell to a producer, and although it became a professional and commercial undertaking, with well-paid stars, jealous unions, watchful insurance companies, and budgeted financing by Gaumont, Beauty and the Beast nevertheless represented a triumph over primary difficulties. Like most of the combatant countries, France emerged from the war stripped; Cocteau himself was receiving food packages from Jean-Pierre Aumont in California, and when he fell ill, he was treated with American penicillin; everything was in short supply. Old cameras jammed, old lenses developed flaws, no two batches of film were alike, electric current failed or was bureaucratically cut off; there was small choice of fabrics for costumes; sheets without patches were sought everywhere for the farmyard laundry scene; the curtains of Beauty’s bed were stolen from the set. There were the usual Coctelian coincidences and contradictions. In the manor outside Tours used as Beauty’s house was found a disc of Cocteau reading his poems; as a setting, the place was perfect—but it was near a military airfield, and though the goodwill of the commanding colonel was secured, he proved forgetful or a poor disciplinarian, and training flights constantly interfered with sound recording. The Château de Raray, near Senlis, used for exterior shots of the Beast’s castle, had “the most bizarre park in France,” with a fantastic sculptured stone procession of hunting dogs silhouetted against the sky, atop a high parapet; that made it, too, an appropriate setting—but there in the north, rain was incessant. (And local children, come to watch the filming, ran off terrified as the Beast emerged from bushes.) Just when the carcass of a deer was needed, the Paris wholesale game markets went on strike. Most of the cast was accident prone. Cocteau, scourged by his post-occupation eczema, so disfigured that for a time he wore “a veil made of black paper, fastened to the brim of his hat with clothespins, with holes for his eyes and mouth,” developed jaundice, and filming was interrupted while he was hospitalized in the Institut Pasteur. The journal he kept during the filming, the predecessor of many later blow-by-blow accounts of the making of movies, and unique in being the work of the artist-moviemaker himself, swarms with the names of doctors. (The maddening irritation of the skin disease was one of the reasons Cocteau returned to opium for a time in 1946–47. On January 23, 1947, the newspaper Franc-Tireur published his photograph—one of his few unposed pictures—amid a group of addicts summoned to the Palais de Justice. In later years, Cocteau seems to have smoked with moderation, when at all.)
The filming of Beauty and the Beast brought Cocteau an enchantment reminiscent of his days with the Diaghilev troupe, the sensation of being part of a hardworking family of sacred monsters; moving from manor to château to Paris film studio, they were like mountebanks; Cocteau’s journal celebrates the camaraderie and goodwill of the company—the actors’ professional tolerance of each other’s crises de nerfs, their busy shuttling between the film studio and the legitimate theaters where some of them were simultaneously appearing in plays, the combination of familiarity and respect shown by the grips, their never-failing improvisation when rescue was needed, the studio sweepers’ praise after the first rushes, the Vouvray wine with the picnic meals, cast and crew playing cards during rests, Marais hilariously plunging clothed into a fountain one midnight, celebrating with the people of Tours the first anniversary of their liberation. “I wonder,” Cocteau wrote, “whether these days of hard work aren’t the most delicious of my life. Full of friendship, affectionate disagreement, laughter, profiting from every moment.” The breakup was sentimental. “We shall be working tonight. The last night. I know nothing sadder than the end of a film, the dissolution of a team that has developed ties of affection.”
After cutting, after the synchronization of Auric’s music—Auric was the only veteran of The Blood of a Poet to collaborate on Beauty and the Beast—the first showing of the film for an audience of any size was for the technicians in the Joinville studio. The invitation was written on the studio blackboard; schedules were changed to leave everyone free. “The welcome the picture received from that audience of workers was unforgettable. It was my greatest reward. Whatever happens, nothing will ever equal the grace of that ceremony organized, very simply, by a little village of workmen whose trade is the packaging of dreams.” That night, the journal ends: “Afterward, at ten, I had dinner at the Palais-Royal with Bérard, Boris, Auric, Jean Marais, Claude Ibéria (the editor of the film), and we promised each other to work together always. May fate never separate us.”
Out of the extravagant variety of Jean Cocteau’s work—the paintings and drawings, the poems, the plays and novels and memoirs, the opera librettos and ballet scenarios—it is likely his films that will have the most enduring influence, and among those, Beauty and the Beast (1946) will have the most pervasive effect. When it comes to “fairy-tale movies”—if such a genre exists as something other than a profit center for the Disney corporation—there is Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and then there is everything else. It is a safe bet that no one who surrenders to it at an impressionable age ever quite escapes the distinct and disturbing enchantments it sets in motion.
It is also perhaps the most self-effacing of Cocteau’s works. His flamboyance and wit are placed at the service of the old folkloric tale by Mme Leprince de Beaumont; even as he adds his characteristic complications to the tale—giving the Beast a thoroughly earthly and unenchanted doppelgänger, Avenant, and adding a mythic dimension by means of a secret temple to Diana—he allows the pure force of the narrative to assert itself, as if he were content for once to figure as a kind of medieval artisan. An artisan among artisans: the film is virtually a showcase for the best in French production design (Christian Bérard), music (Georges Auric), cinematography (Henri Alekan), and costuming (Marcel Escoffier). Yet the net effect is, if anything, austere rather than lush, a tribute to Cocteau’s unerring sense that here the tale, with its mysterious imperatives, is everything.
The film is inescapably tied up with the war during which it was planned. Shooting began four months after the German surrender. The deprivations of the period account for the fact that it was not filmed in color, as Cocteau had wished—hard as it is to imagine the movie apart from Alekan’s black-and-white palette, with its careful distinction between a deceptively sunny ordinary reality and the Beast’s domain of night. This harshness in the background is perceptible in other ways as well. The storybook setting of a seventeenth-century farmhouse, into which we are ushered with the phrase “once upon a time,” is revealed within a few moments as a place of vanity and venality, cowardice and petty-minded squabbling, slaps and insults. It is a fallen world, in which Belle (Josette Day) seems to withdraw into a hermetic suffering amid the meanness of her elder sisters, the feckless opportunism of her brother, the moral weakness of her father, and the overtures of Jean Marais’ handsome and empty Avenant. The hellishness of this pictorially elegant but resolutely unmagical reality, further amplified by the implied rapacity of encircling creditors and moneylenders, makes it an unlikely setting for any conceivable “happy ever after.”
By establishing how truly oppressive is the world that Belle and her father inhabit, Cocteau makes all the more uncanny the discovery, by the harried merchant, of a passageway out of it, into the Beast’s realm. It is like the breaching of a seam, and we are carried through every part of the process: through the misty forest and up a deserted staircase, through the great door and, in the most otherworldly of camera movements, down the hall of human arms extending candelabra whose flames spontaneously flare up—a rite of initiation that loses none of its power from learning that it was achieved by filming the action backward, and that it was shot not by Cocteau but by his assistant, René Clément. You can play it back time and again without exhausting the sense of shock at having passed through some ordinary, invisible portal.
If this is magic, it is a shaggy, palpable sort of magic. As a true poet—whether writing verse or otherwise—Cocteau had a poet’s hard-earned mistrust of the merely atmospheric, decorative vagueness misnamed “poetic”: “My method,” he wrote at the outset of his journal of the shooting of Beauty and the Beast, “is simple: not to aim at poetry. That must come of its own accord. The mere whispered mention of its name frightens it away.” The result, of course, was a film that, as much as any other, has been praised as lyrical, almost unbearable in its ethereal gorgeousness, a triumph of the imagination—even when it may just as accurately be described as tough-minded, down-to-earth, ferociously unsentimental. If Cocteau’s film continues to breathe, as few have done, the air of the fantastic, it is because we sense at each moment that we are caught up in a process governed by laws, laws that may be difficult to explain or even articulate but that express themselves by the most concrete means: “Fantasy has its own laws, which are like those of perspective. You may not bring what is distant into the foreground nor render fuzzily what is near.” Like a ritual performed in order to produce results, not just to make the participants feel good, Beauty and the Beast moves through its phases undistracted by anything, focused only on the business at hand.
Any prettiness is incidental, mere drapery over darker and more archaic imperatives. The underlying structure is nearly pitiless, an intricately intermeshing machinery loaded with hidden traps. Cocteau has a logician’s respect for the orders of ritual and the cruel demands of ritual sacrifice. His “magic” has, from certain angles, the paranoid efficiency of a cosmic prison house in which miracles exist but only at a rigorously exacted price. The weightless happiness that is the perennial promise of both fairy tales and movies is to be attained at a cost measured out frame by frame, in a story more full of suffering than of wish fulfillment—and in which, indeed, the promise of ecstasy embraced in the moment of final metamorphosis quickly threatens to become a more banal contentment. Even as Belle and her prince (the Beast transformed into the double of the unreliable Avenant) soar into the sky, she seems already to realize that this is not exactly what she wanted. The instant reaction attributed to Greta Garbo captures perfectly the strange disappointment of the “happy” ending: “Give me back my Beast!”
In Beauty and the Beast, as previously in The Blood of a Poet (1930) and later in Orpheus (1950), Cocteau was able to realize the fantastic not as an escape from the real but as an extension of it, as its reverse side. He has no interest in Neverlands or Wonderlands. He approaches the paraphernalia of the fairy tale—those enchanted mirrors, keys, gloves—with a technician’s dispassion, no more taken aback by their existence than by the existence of trees or streams or horses or rose gardens, but endlessly curious about how they function. For Cocteau, “movie magic” is not a glib catchphrase. As a science of transformation, cinema becomes true alchemy. The mirror in The Blood of a Poet that becomes a splashing pool as one passes through it is not an illusion but an achieved reality; in Orpheus, the comings and goings between the realms of the living and the dead are rendered in a deadpan spirit of documentary observation. If magic requires the use of specialized equipment, for Cocteau that equipment includes the whole somnambulistic repertoire of the movies’ night side, from Meliès on out. When in watching Beauty and the Beast we think at one moment or another of Nosferatu or Metropolis or Dracula or King Kong, it is not with the sense that they have been imitated or self-consciously alluded to but as if their effective elements have been incorporated wholesale, as needed, by the resident shaman.
The magic is sexual throughout—a fantastic, but not in the least morbid or phantasmal, sex magic. What could be more direct and free of coyness than the image of the Beast drinking water from Belle’s hands, although it is so chaste that no censor could have ever assailed it? It is matched by the tactile immediacy of the moment when the grieving Beast presses his furry face against the fur coverlet of Belle’s empty bed. The irresistible effect of everything that happens after Belle enters the castle is tied to the pair’s aura of forbidden intimacy: her slow-motion advance into the Beast’s great hall, as she moves past the billowing white curtains and Auric’s music bursts out in choral ululations; her passage through the talking door, into the privacies of mirror and bed; the night wanderings in which she spies on the Beast in the aftermath of his nocturnal slaughters, while he stares in horror at his smoking hands.
The extraordinarily beautiful shot in which we see the Beast from behind, his head haloed in light, as he ascends the stairs with Belle in his arms, while on the other side of the screen, light streams through dungeonlike grillwork, conjures with gothic intensity the imminence of a sexual fantasy fulfilled, in a setting made for such fulfillment—a bedroom hidden within a castle hidden within a forest—and with Beauty delivered defenseless into the embrace of a Beast manifestly able to sweep away all resistance. The erotic force of the episode that follows is outdone only by the even greater emotional force of the restraint that stops him in his tracks and sends him rushing out of the room, saying, “You mustn’t look into my eyes.”
It is, of course, his eyes that we look at, glistening from within the multilayered makeup that cost Marais five hours of application each day, makeup so expressive that Marais’ real face seems a blank by comparison. We cannot shake the certainty that an actual creature has been introduced into the world, and the sorrow provoked by his disappearance recurs anew on each viewing. I doubt whether so solitary and tragic a figure has ever been so fully realized in movies before or since, and realized here not only through Hagop Arakelian’s makeup skills and Marais’ performance but through the universe created to form a context around him, made out of Cocteau’s words, Auric’s music, Alekan’s images.
As for Belle, she is, finally, almost as much of a cipher as the statue of Diana that breaks the spell by shooting an arrow into the rascally Avenant. When the Beast tells her, “You are the only master here,” he underscores the cruelty at the heart of Cocteau’s fable. Beauty is indeed the master of all the craftsmanlike skills brought to their highest pitch to realize this singular vision: a Beauty who may offer love or capriciously withhold it, a Beauty who wants only a rose—even if that rose may threaten death to anyone who gives it to her—a Beauty who may, after all, know herself least well and therefore never fully grasp her own all-determining power. Only in the mirror world of art can Beauty and Beast truly cohabit. And even for Cocteau, master of such a range of arts, what art but cinema—the magic mirror itself—could ever realize that cohabitation so persuasively?
Beauty and the Beast had subtle and yet extraordinary special effects. Cocteau's camera trickery was groundbreaking which of course was done a lot by reversing the film, like for instance in the scene when the necklace that the Beast wants to give to Belle magically flies right into her hands. There is an ironic scene later when Belle returns home not as the maid but now a true beauty, and politely offers the necklace to one of her sisters. Once her hideous sister touches it suddenly transforms into a hideous creation because the necklace was made for Belle and for Belle only. There is also a humorous scene where one of her sisters looks into Belle's magic mirror and sees the reflection of a monkey; in which was what she asked her father to get for her before leaving on his trip in the beginning of the film.
Cocteau's first surrealistic film was The Blood of a Poet which was produced by the Viscount de Noailles, who financed Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel's scandalous film L'Age d'Or in the same year; when their film was condemned by the Vatican. Critic Roger Ebert says, "that the viscount shelved the it and timidly delayed the release of Blood of a Poet for two years. It went on to become a famous surrealist work that played daily for 15 years in one New York theater. Cocteau claimed to think little of his first film, although modesty did not prevent him from mentioning its 15-year run in his memoirs." Cocteau's next masterpiece was Orpheus which is based on the classic Orpheus story which is about a musician who has to descend down to the underworld and reclaim his dead wife. He charms the gods with his music so they let him return his wife back to the world of the living but only on the condition that he must never look at her again. Jean Cocteau’s surreal version of that story is quite different. He changes the musician into a poet and sets the story in modern 1950's Paris. The one interesting twist that Cocteau adds to the legend is that of a romance between Death and Orpheus which creates a sort of love triangle between the characters. With this film Cocteau uses beautiful black and white cinematography and more of his subtle effective special effects and the reverse trick shots of the camera that is very similar to the style of Beauty and the Beast. Ten years later he did Testament of Orpheus which is considered Cocteau's final film of his Orpheus trilogy which started with his first film The Blood of a Poet. The score for Beauty and the Beast was composed by Georges Auric, and the cinematography by Henri Alekan with Christian Bérard and Lucien Carré covered production design. As mentioned in the Criterion DVD extras the exteriors were shot in the Château de la Roche Courbon. Also, the set designs and cinematography were intended to evoke the illustrations and engravings of Gustave Doré and, in the farmhouse scenes, the paintings of Jan Vermeer.
Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast is more than just a fairy tale but a beautiful enchanting story on how beauty can be in the eye of the beholder. He wanted to make a poem, wanted to express what he felt through images rather than words, and even though the story takes the form of the familiar fable, its surface themes are much darker and deeper. This version of Beauty and the Beast is not a children's film, with the dancing and singing and cute colorful characters of the Disney version. I love the 1991 Disney version of Beauty and the Beast and I believe it to be the best Disney cartoon in the 90's besides The Lion King. But the one thing that always bothered me about that film was the theme of a woman changing a man, and training him to me a better person. I just think younger girls shouldn't believe they should want to try to change someone who's mean, verbally abusive and has a violent temper. It gives them the idea that a woman can change a man and unfortunately that's not true, unless the man himself wants to change.
Cocteau's version is drastically different from the original tale. His version adds a subplot that involves Belle's suitor Avenant, who schemes with Belle's brother and sisters to capture riches. This version also borrows from La Chatte Blanche by Marie-Cathérine d'Aulnoy, which was published in Les Contes des Fées, Paris around 1697-1698. In the original tale, Belle has three brothers, whereas in Cocteau's film, she only has one and in the original tale, Belle and her family are forced to move to a farmstead in the countryside after the loss of their fortune; where in the film, they continue to live in their townhouse. Also in the original tale, the sisters are turned into statues as punishment for their cruelty, where in the film, they are only forced to be Belle's servants. In the fairytale, Belle repeatedly has dreams about a handsome prince which is a Beast in his true form. She believes this Prince is, like herself, a captive in the Beast's castle and searches for him during the day which is much different in the film and also different in the 1991 Disney version of the film.
What makes Cocteau's version of Beauty and the Beast much more deeper and slightly more disturbing than all its other adaptations is that the Beast in this version is a good man who was had this curse thrown upon him. Cocteau portrays the pains and torments on how the Beast feels about himself. He's someone who is good on the inside but is considered ugly on the outside by the norm, which unfortunately - isn't a fairytale. There are millions of people who are considered not the 'norm' of beauty in our society, and are looked at as hideous and revolting. When it comes to deformity's or obesity our society pushes people into believing what they should think is the image of beauty and what is unattractive or ugly. Human nature's theme of what is beautiful and what is considered ugly has been around since the beginning of time and has developed some of the greatest stories in classic literature and film. From the silent classic The Man who Laughs to The Hunchback of Notre Dame and now arriving to the present with The Elephant Man, the pain of someone who is considered an outcast by society because of how they look on the outside will always be there and will never leave, as long as people will always be scared towards those who are different. I found it an interesting choice that Cocteau decided on using the same actor Jean Marais to play the role of the Beast and of Avenant. What was Cocteau trying to say by doing this? I think he was saying that Belle loved Avenant but could not love the Beast, not because of their different personality traits but because of their looks. I don't believe Avenant is really any worse than the Beast. I can understand why he would want to kill the Beast because of holding his love Belle prisoner - what man wouldn't feel that way? Maybe Cocteau was saying that its human nature to be closed-minded and vain and to not look past what's on the outside to see the true beauty on the inside. It is true that being attractive to someone is important romantically but looks only go so far. Because when it all comes down to a person being your soul mate, it's what is inside the person that matters. In 1999, Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert added the film to his "Great Movies" list, calling it "one of the most magical of all films" and a "fantasy alive with trick shots and astonishing effects." In 2010, the film was ranked #26 in Empire magazine's 100 Best Films of World Cinema. Beauty and the Beast is one of the most enchanting films of all time, and where most fairy tales end with "they live happily ever after," Cocteau ends it on a slightly different and deeper approach. After the Beast turns human again, Belle looks slightly disappointed. Some of it has to do with The Beast looking similar to Avenant but I believe it's also because she now looked beyond the grotesqueness of The Beast's exterior and no longer finds his looks unattractive anymore. When the Beast now looking like the hansom prince every young girl dreams of, asks her, "Are you happy?" She answers, "I'll have to get used to it."