la belle et la bête

La Belle et La Bête, 1946 directed by Jean Cocteau, film still

La Belle et La Bête, 1946 directed by Jean Cocteau, film still

La Belle et La Bête is a 1946 French film adaptation of Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont’s fairy tale. Directed by Jean Cocteau, the film stars Josette Day as Belle and Jean Marais who playes both Avenant and The Beast. Black and white, 35mm; running time: 96 minutes (90 minutes according to some sources). Released on the 29th October 1946, Paris. Filmed in Saint-Maurice studios; exteriors shot at Rochecorbon in Touraine.

La Belle et La Bête, 1946 directed by Jean Cocteau, film still

La Belle et la bête, the film which marked Jean Cocteau’s return to directing after an interval of 15 years, is a work which continues the vein of fantasy which had characterised his scriptwriting during the wartime years. To this extent the film is typical of its period, for the early postwar years in France saw a basic continuity with approaches established during the Vichy period (there was no resurgence of realism in France to compare with the emergence of neorealism in Italy). But in all other ways the appropriation of a fairy tale to the filmmaker’s own personal mythology is a totally individual work.

The film is based on the tale as told by Madame Leprince de Beaumont, but there is little evidence in Cocteau’s approach of the childlike innocence which the director demands of his audience in his brief introduction to the film. Visually, the film is one of Cocteau’s most sophisticated works. The costumes designed by Christian Bérard and the lighting and framing devised by Henri Alekan are decorative rather than functional and take their inspiration from classic Dutch painting, particularly the work of Vermeer. Despite the presence of René Clément as technical supervisor, the film shows none of the reliance on complexity of scripting and use of heavy irony so characteristic of French cinema in the late 1940s. The legend is handled in a dazzingly eclectic style. The home life of Belle’s family is parodied and often broadly farcial in tone, as, for instance, in the use of cackling ducks to comment on the attitudes of her sisters. By contrast, the departure of Belle for the Beast’s castle and her entry there are totally stylised, with Cocteau employing slow motion photography to obtain a dreamlike effect.

La Belle et la bête is an excellent example of Cocteau’s continual concern in his film work to provide a “realism of the unreal.” The fairytale world of Beast’s castle is given great solidity, and indeed it is arguable that the setting has been given too much weight, with the result that there is a degree of ponderousness about the film which Georges Auric’s music serves only to emphasise. In evoking the magical qualities of the castle, Cocteau has made surprisingly little use of the film’s trick shot potentialities which form so crucial a part of so many of his other works. Here the living faces of the statuary and the disembodied human arms that act as Beast’s servants are essentially theatrical devices.

One of the great difficulties facing Cocteau was that of sustaining interest for 90 minutes in the oversimplified and largely unpersonalised characters of his source material. The solution found for the minor characters is caricature and humour. For the Beast, Cocteau and Bérard use the make-up of Jean Marais to emphasise his bestial nature, a strategy which is particularly effective in such scenes as those in which he drinks or scents game. Belle is by comparison a fairly dull figure, despite Josette Day’s beauty, but the ambiguities of her attitude toward the Beast do add interest and complexity to the character. The double use of Jean Marais as both the Beast and Belle’s dissolute lover avoids the danger of too easy an explanation of the film’s symbolism, and the transformation into a princely figure at the end shows a characteristically lyrical approach to death on the filmmaker’s part. Particularly when seen in conjunction with the intimate diary of the shooting which Cocteau published in 1946 to coincide with the release of the film, La Belle et la bête provides an excellent introduction to the work of one of the screen’s subtlest and most evocative poets. [Text by Roy Armes]

La Belle et La Bête, 1946 directed by Jean Cocteau, film still

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