La Belle et la Bête

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

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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.

One thought on “La Belle et la Bête

  1. I re­ally en­joy read­ing your dis­sec­tion of these films, even when they are ones I have never seen.

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