Beauty and the Beast
Josette Day, Jean Marais, Mila Parey
Director: Jean Cocteau
The saying 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' is, of course, a cliche. But like most cliches it contains an element of truth. In the masterful hands of French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, the notion becomes the foundation for a resonant and touching exploration of romantic love.
Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et La Bete) is Cocteau's exploration of a fairy tale written by Leprince de Beaumont. The story focuses on a beautiful and humane young girl who is forced to live with a beast-like creature in a magical castle. If she leaves the castle, her father will die. The Beast is a troubled creature who is torn between animal instincts and human feelings. He is tender towards Beauty, who gradually overcomes her fear of his appearance and falls in love with him.
Cocteau was no ordinary filmmaker. A poet, he sought to use images in the same associative way he used words. He realised films were capable of doing much more than telling straightforward stories. He wanted to film images that worked on the mind in the same way as poetry. In his hands, the camera became a cinematic version of a pen. Some of his films, such as Orphee (1950), were intensely metaphysical. But Beauty was intended as an exercise in simplicity.
Cocteau used the story as a basis to explore the often unfathomable nature of romantic attraction. In his published notes, he said he was disappointed by the fact that films always showed women falling in love with saccharine princely types. The inaccuracy of this representation irritated him. Beauty may be a fairy tale, but the relationships between the characters are complex. The titular character makes a gradual transition from fear, to fondness, to love for her beastly paramour.
Remarkably, she quickly loses her horror of his appearance. When he arrives at her bedroom door covered in blood from a freshly killed stag, she scolds him and tells him to clean himself up. Cocteau's tour-de-force is a scene where the Beast turns into a fairy-tale prince. Far from being thrilled at his looks, Beauty is a little disappointed by the change. She says she will 'have to get used to it'. Many of the film's female viewers wrote in and agreed with her, Cocteau writes.
Cocteau said he wanted the film to look like old polished silver - and that is exactly what cinematographer Henri Alekan achieved. Cocteau also tried to use as little cinematic trickery as possible. For instance, the castle is simply peopled by actors posing as objects, an aesthetic touch that seems wonderful now but was derided back in 1945.
The Beast's make-up still looks effective. Actor Jean Marais, who played the Beast and two other roles, wore a mask made by an old artisan discovered by Cocteau.
The hairs on the mask were modelled on Marais' dog, who went with him to the fitting sessions. The spottiness of the Beast's hair, Cocteau thinks, is what makes him look realistic.
Cocteau's movie is a thing of beauty in itself. It's a pristine and glowing celebration of the always strange act of falling in love.