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Starring Emma Watson or Léa Seydoux in recent adaptations on the big screen, Beauty and the Beast became a part of popular culture with its 1991 animated version. But 50 years before Disney, french director Jean Cocteau’s avant-garde La Belle et la Bête already had reimagined fairytales.
In a plea at the very beginning, right after the opening credits handwritten on a chalkboard then erased, Jean Cocteau requests we leave behind all preconceptions in order to daydream freely, and find our inner child again. With Beauty and the Beast, he attempts to rebuild in people’s heart a fairyland out of a country broken by World War II and blow a wind of hope and fantasy upon a France still traumatised by the horror of bombs. After all, the film is an outstretched hand towards an entire generation, a youth who never knew how to dream but also towards the eldest who lost faith. Its message stood the test of time and left an indelible mark on fantasy cinema.
In itself, La Belle et la Bête is a piece of art, as would be a sculpture frozen in time and exhibited for everyone to admire, and multiple scenes prove it. As Beauty – played by actress Josette Day – delivers her tirade in the farmhouse, she no longer is human solely. She shines like a living and breathing Vermeer painting whilst an ethereal halo envelops her face. Similarly, Cocteau’s obsession with mirrors translates a wish to take the audience to a different world. As in greek mythology, we find in reflections a door that we are all invited to open and walk through. The exaggerated stage acting so typical of french films at that time, also makes the tale even more compelling and mesmerising. It is clear that Beauty and the Beast gathers a large range of references which makes it more than just a film, but mainly a roundabout for literature, painting, live art and all forms of art.
Although Cocteau plays with gorgeous costume designs and a glittery set to show sumptuosity, he always juxtaposes beauty and ugliness in a poetic way. All along, he explores how ugliness can be found differently in three of his characters, all played by muse and legendary French actor Jean Marais. With Avenant (turned Gaston by Disney), he portrays ugliness of heart while he shows the Beast with a monstrous appearance. But Cocteau’s more surprising definition of ugliness resides in Prince Charming. Although he appears totally human, we come to regret the old yet much more touching Beast, which was the whole point. “My aim would be to make the Beast so human, so sympathetic, so superior to men, that his transformation into Prince Charming would come as a terrible blow to Beauty” says the director himself in the press-book accompanying the film in 1947. It all makes sense in the end as we feel Cocteau’s intention was never to picture beauty for the sake of it but to set a challenge for the mind.
What’s fascinating about this film is how, with its luminous and hypnotising black and white, Beauty and the Beast is a lavish mix of soft horror and magic. The atmosphere creates wonder but it is unsettling and terrifying at the same time. Part of the fantastic lies in the disembodied and real living arms holding candelabrums or gloomy statues suddenly opening their very white eyes in the dark, constantly haunting the Beast’s castle. To this day, we can still clearly measure Cocteau’s impact and see the ghost of his cinema on other modern films that he definitely influenced, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth being one significant example.
Anchoring his tale in reality without restraining the imagination, Jean Cocteau’s tale contributed in making me believe in fairytales as a child. Teaching us a lesson about the duality between beauty and ugliness and how we perceive both, Beauty and the Beast is not only the best of all adaptations, but it is also an instruction book on how to let ourselves drift to a new enchanted world.
You can view Beauty and the Beast on Criterion here
By Marie-Célia Cannenpasse
Marie-Célia is from a French Caribbean island, and currently studying applied foreign languages at Sorbonne University in Paris, whilst taking filmmaking courses online. She enjoys listening to soundtracks curled up under a comfy duvet on rainy days, gushing about Kate Winslet or Christian Bale on a daily basis, and crying over the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace. Her favourite films include Gone with the wind, Super 8, Call me by your name and The Prestige. You can find her on Twittter @MCeliaCR and on letterboxd too @MCeliaCR.
Categories: Anything and Everything