La Belle et la Bête

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #6: Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.


At the present moment, a film that goes against aver­age taste gets few book­ings in France, and out­side of some ambi­tious pic­tures under­tak­en to main­tain pres­tige, pro­duc­tion is almost at a stand­still and the stu­dios desert­ed. A poet engaged in film work must face anoth­er great dif­fi­cul­ty: the imme­di­ate results demand­ed of a motion pic­ture. A book can wait. A play that has flopped may be revived. A film must please at once, and we there­fore have to devise ways to please and dis­please at the same time. There has nev­er yet been an instance of some­thing new not baf­fling the esthetes, the crit­ics and the pub­lic, lazi­ly accept­ing famil­iar for­mu­las. The least chal­lenge is apt to awak­en a bru­tal and unpleas­ant response.

Jean Cocteau

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Cocteau’s com­plaint about post war France is just as applic­a­ble to film cul­ture today as it was then, and it also pro­vides a good spring­board to the role of the folk/fairy tale as a means of keep­ing things the same as they change.

Beau­ty and the Beast starts out with an elo­quent plea from Cocteau to his adult audi­ence. He encour­ages them to watch the film as if they were still chil­dren, basi­cal­ly a request to sus­pend their dis­be­lief as they watch the film. I found this to be some­what humor­ous, since Méliès [one of my favorite film­mak­ers] required a much larg­er sus­pen­sion with­out the dis­claimer. Of course, by the time Cocteau was doing his film thing, the indus­try had actu­al­ly become an indus­try and audi­ences expect­ed to see films instead of tech­no­log­i­cal trick­ery. So the more things change the more they change. Cocteau

decid­ed to make a film that would be a fairy tale, and when [he] chose the one that is the least fairy-like—which is to say the one that would need to make the least use of mod­ern cin­e­ma tech­niques

he essen­tial­ly arrived at a posi­tion where inge­nious use of the­atri­cal inge­nu­ity replaced most cin­e­mat­ic spe­cial effects. There are a few cam­era tricks, of course, but noth­ing that hadn’t been seen before. In fact, at the end, as the Belle et la Bête fly off into the sky, you can actu­al­ly see the frame over­lays thanks to the restored print. Where the set can be ful­ly con­trolled, the cin­e­matog­ra­phy is out­stand­ing. The musi­cal score got on my nerves, because it seemed a bit over the top. Mise en scene is where the film excels, as well as Jean Marais’s act­ing abil­i­ty. He real­ly nails the split per­son­al­i­ties of a noble man wrestling with a beast’s nature.

belleetlabete01.jpgNow we can bring in the sto­ry of Beau­ty and the Beast itself. Like most tra­di­tion­al tales, it has a moral: you can’t judge a book by its cov­er; and like most tra­di­tion­al tales, it serves as a means of per­pet­u­at­ing basic cul­tur­al val­ues. This is a curi­ous basis for a sto­ry that Cocteau assumes orig­i­nat­ed in Scot­land and is mar­ket­ing to an Amer­i­can audi­ence. Why do Beau­ty and the Beast then? Was it just an exer­cise for Cocteau? Well, maybe, but exer­cise is good for you, and Cocteau is pro­mot­ing the child­like sense of won­der that is so close to my heart.

An argu­ment could prob­a­bly be made that La Belle et la Bête served an impor­tant role in redefin­ing French cul­ture after World War II, but I don’t think all things must be more than they are. I’m will­ing to take Cocteau’s intent as noth­ing more than a desire to enter­tain and amaze. Which, when done well, is a high­er order of expe­ri­ence any­way.

Cri­te­ri­on Essay by Fran­cis Steeg­muller
Cri­te­ri­on Essay by Jean Cocteau
The Cri­te­ri­on Contraption’s review.