BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Belle et la bête, La)
(director/writer: Jean Cocteau; screenwriter: from the fairy-tale by Mme. Leprince de Beaumont; cinematographer: Henri Alekan; editor: Claude Ibéria; music: Georges Auric; cast: Jean Marais (The Beast/Avenant), Josette Day (Beauty), Mila Parély (Adelaide), Nane Germon (Félicie), Michel Auclair (Ludovic), Raoul Marco (The usurer), Marcel André (Beauty’s father, the merchant); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Andre Paulve; The Criterion Collection; 1946-France-in French with English subtitles)
“It sets the benchmark in elegance for such fantasy films.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Jean Cocteau (“The Blood of a Poet”/”Orpheus”) is the writer-director of this imaginative but at times heavy-handed arthouse fairy tale. The story is based on the 1757 fairy-tale by Mme. Leprince de Beaumont. It sets the benchmark in elegance for such fantasy films. The film’s magical moments feature the outstanding sets and costumes designed by Christian Bérard and Escoffier, and the moving portrait of the Beast as a frightening, erotic and sensitive creature by Jean Marais (he also plays the part of Avenant). The only weaknesses are when the film deals with reality, which are less than enchanting.
Belle (Josette Day) works as servant in her household after her merchant father (Marcel André) goes bust by the loss of his three ships at sea. Her wretched sisters Adelaide (Mila Parély) and Félicie (Nane Germon) refuse to help and her idler brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair) only frolics with his shallow friend Avenant (Jean Marais). The handsome Avenant asks Belle to marry him, but even though she loves him turns him down by saying her duty is to take care of her father. Things look up with the news that one of the ships has been found and her father goes to the port to reclaim it. The two vain sisters want him to return with luxurious gifts, while Belle only asks for a single Rose. The father receives the bad news that his creditors have seized the ship (his son built up a debt behind his back) and returns home at night by way of the forest empty-handed. He loses his bearings and comes upon a castle whose doors mysteriously open and unseen hands light the way and prepare food for him (filmed at Raray, home to one of the most beautiful French palaces and parks). In the morning before he leaves, he plucks a rose from the garden for Belle and is reproached by an angered Beast. He’s given the choice of being killed or having one of his three daughters agree to pay back the debt by staying with him in the castle. The father returns home, gives Belle the rose, and becomes bedridden with a mysterious ailment. Belle agrees to be with the Beast blaming herself for his misfortune. She goes there in the Beast’s white horse and is frightened at how ugly the Beast is but soon learns to look beyond his appearance and finds he’s kind-hearted, lonely and a good person. But when the Beast asks her hand in marriage, she puts him off by saying she’s fond of him but not in love. When she’s allowed to return home to tend to her father’s illness, her greedy sisters learn of the Beast’s great magical powers and great riches. They plot to steal the treasure and send Avenant and Ludovic on the white horse Magnificent to steal the treasure after stealing the key to the castle from Belle. In the meantime, Belle cures her father with the Beast’s magical glove and then goes to find a dying Beast. He’s dying from grief because no one loves him. But he’s saved by Belle’s loving look. While entering the castle, Avenant is shot with an arrow by an unseen shooter and becomes the Beast. At the same moment the Beast becomes Prince Charming handsome like Avenant and tells Belle that she will be his queen. They embrace and fly off to heaven, and live happily ever after.
The allegory depicting true love, loneliness and fear of one’s animal nature is told with spare dialogue and through a child’s eye but with adult humor thrown in. The black and white photography magnificently glitters setting an eerie ethereal mood; the magical castle has many memorable images such as the candelabras on arms and moving faces in the stoneworks; there’s intriguing shots of smoke rising from the beast’s fingers after he has just made a kill and of Belle giving her sisters the pearl necklace present the Beast gave her and it turns to garbage as soon as the sister touches it; the medieval costumes taken from the drawings of the 19th-century Gothic artist Gustav Doré sparkle with a richness; and the music of Georges Auric is very satisfying. There’s more beauty than beast in this production. A visual treat.
REVIEWED ON 11/25/2006 GRADE: A-