La Belle et la Bête (Jean Cocteau, 1946)
The impressively long-running Cinéclub — over 25 years and counting, with head mastermind Phil Spurrell’s dogged stubbornness leading to it packing out nearly every week now (good for him… only I’ve noticed the ominous growing presence of clueless hipster hyenas demonstratively cackling at the films out of sheer ignorance… can’t escape them anywhere at this point it seems) – started off its winter/spring program with the kind of classic the Society loves to revisit, in this case, with the much revered Cocteau (who I’ve literally seen nothing of) and this (I think) first (or at the least, early) cinematic incarnation of Beauty and the Beast (which there is now so many adaptions, both animated and live action, to films and multiple television series, it’s impossible to keep up… and I’ve seen literally not a one of them…. until now).
From its lyrical open plea directly from the filmmaker to allow for the flights of fancy of childhood in what’s to come, to the evocatively realized creations of forests in which branches part before riders on horseback, into the Beast’s castle-like lair where disembodied arms reach through walls to hold aloft candelabras that blaze alight only when someone passes, by which to see down the long shadowy hallways of white curtains billowing in the wind, the living busts, frozen in place accept the moving eyes, and on into that unique and unforgettable visage – and presence — of the tortured Beast himself, what struck me was just how genuinely heartfelt Cocteau’s vision is. I had thought of him (from the outside looking in) as an intellectual, avante garde type of filmmaker, so wasn’t expecting this wonderfully sincere presentation.
I mean, with sets that oft surround characters in darkness, there’s no doubt of the film’s avante garde flourishes, but intellectual? I’m quite sure many academic folk have spoken in wild flourishes on the underlying psychological perspectives within the film; for me, it’s the bold purity of Cocteau’s creation of a childlike fairy tale, one of conquering love, that is so stunning. Yes, of course, with Belle’s evil sisters and the finding of a ‘prince’ as a reward for the put-upon Belle by the end, has the story operating straight from the old school tradition, the same place as your average Disney picture of that time. Doesn’t make it any less evocative as a dreamy landscape, or successful as an artistic cinematic experience.
And if we’re gonna talk about Beauty, that Jean Marais guy, who plays both Belle’s suave, if petulant and arrogant human suitor, as well as the Beast under that astounding makeup, he may not be the best of actors (by any stretch… I’m suspecting the fact he was Cocteau’s lover might be a reason or two for the filmmaker ignoring the actor’s general stiffness – well, he probably wasn’t ignoring all of Marais’ stiffness, wink, wink, nudge, nudge – and allowing him such prominence in the film), but as the Beast his simple style becomes a wonderful strength. The wild expressive eyes of the tortured Beast, in love with a human but deeply ashamed by his animalistic desires to hunt and kill, is as much a part of the creature’s indelible connection as the makeup and Marais’ physical prowess.
La Belle et la Bēte is a magical film, joyous and even haunting, with its unforgettable central beast and the beautifully constructed mystical world he lives in. Not only glad to finally catch up with it, but now it’s opened the door to me thinking I might delve into another adaption, namely, the 80’s television one. It’s only 3 seasons – though, it was the 80’s so that still means a whopping 56 episodes — but what the hell… Hellboy’s Ron Perlman as the Beast and the first Modern Lady of kick-ass Linda Hamilton (well, second – the first being Sigourney Weaver, naturally) as Beauty? I’m thinking it’s worth a looksie…