Written by: John White on March 4th, 2006
Theatrical Release Date: France, 1946
Director: Jean Cocteau
Cast: Jean Marais , Josette Day , Nane Germon, Michel Auclair ,Raoul Marco, Marcel André
DVD released: February 11th, 2003
Approximate running time: 93 mins
Aspect Ratio: 4:3
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono
DVD Release: Criterion
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $39.95
Belle’s father is on the verge of ruin after three ships he has invested in seem to be shipwrecked. This pending ruin is of little concern to his spoilt daughters, Felicite and Adelaide, and the scoundrel nature of his son and his friend, Avenant, make things even more parlous. Belle is the only only comfort with her thoughtless service and support so that she characteristically merely asks for a rose when her father goes to see if rumours of one ship’s salvage are true. Finding the ship is lost like the others, Belle’s father finds himself lost in the forest late at night when he comes upon a magical mansion which offers him respite and food. Alas he takes a rose from the garden and angers the mansion’s lord, the Beast. TheBeast allows him to live as long as he or one of his daughters returns within 3 days. Belle sacrifices herself and is initially repulsed by the beast but comes to be used to him over time. When a longing to see her father overtakes her, the Beast allows her to return for a week but warns that without her return he will die. Once returned her avaricious sisters and her brother trick her to stay and to try to rob the Beast. Will the Beast die of a broken heart and will Belle’s pity become transforming love?
Jean Cocteau was a poet, a painter, a sculptor, a dramatist and an occasional filmmaker. Primarily an aesthete, his films are poetic pieces about man, transgressive love and beauty. Using basic special effects that still look brilliant today, Cocteau undertsood how magical film could be and evidence of that is present throughout his Orphic Trilogy. Some of these tricks are still used today – the through the mirror sequence of Blood of a Poet can be seen again in innumerable films since.
Beauty and the Beast is probably Cocteau’s highest achievement as a filmmaker. A film which starts by telling it’s audience to take a childlike perspective to the images to come, and a film conscious enough of itself to have a title sequence written by the director on a blackboard. Whilst this film is a fairytale it is also a little bit subversive and deliberately enigmatic. It clearly could be read as a love note to the Beast as Jean Marais who plays the same was Cocteau’s lover for years and the strongest sympathy within it is not for the too good to be true Belle but for the suffering noble Beast. In fact given Marias plays three roles it is hard not to think that the Beauty in the title is him, and the Beast is the human’s lust for money and power.
The prosaic opening of the film introduces Belle’s rather selfish and foolish family and her scoundrel love, Avenant (also played by Marais). Belle’s sisters lust for clothes and jewels, her brother is a drunkard and her father is clearly an indulgent fool. Belle’s servitude to these people is long suffering and means her own beauty is lost in clothes of a servant or a cook. When Belle sacrifices herself to be the Beast’s companion she is horrified by his killing for food and his visage but comes to realise that he “is a good Beast”. The Beast in turn fights himself and his nature to not hurt Belle and risks his own life to give her freedom. When the Beast is transformed back to man, again Marais, Belle seems a little nonplussed at this more beautiful incarnation as he looks like the feckless Avenant. Belle has learnt to distrust Beauty.
Cocteau’s film can be enjoyed as a love lyric, a horror story cum fairytale, or a cautionary tale of not judging a book by it’s cover. It is fantastically magical and the ideas here have been borrowed and re-used again and again, but they have never been quite as well done. La Belle et la Bete is a great film that you need to catch before you die.
La Belle et La Bete was Criterion’s sixth release and the original disc was less than stellar with a very battered print and some prosaic extras. The restored and reissued disc is quite a different matter as the print is brilliant even though a few sequences end abruptly. The contrast levels are very good and the work on the sound has eliminated an awful lot of the previous background noise. The english subtitles are excellent throughout.
The disc comes with two commentaries, a new soundtrack composed by Philip Glass, a documentary on the filming of the movie and an interview with the cinematographer. There is also a restoration featurette and original trailer. The booklet with the disc has Cocteau explaining how he filmed the movie and includes a reprint of the tale Cocteau adapted.
This is a tremendous presentation and any true fan of what cinema can do as an art form should possess this disc which will probably not be bettered.
For more information about La Belle et la Bête and other titles released by Criterion visit their website.