Beauty and the Beast
Also known as: La Belle et la Bete
Medium: film
Year: 1946
Director: Jean Cocteau
Writer: Jean Cocteau, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Keywords: fantasy
Language: French
Country: France
Actor: Jean Marais, Josette Day, Mila Parely, Nane Germon, Michel Auclair, Raoul Marco, Marcel Andre
Format: 96 minutes
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 15 December 2008
It's currently number 206 on the imdb's list of the top 250 films, so it seemed worth a look. While living in Japan I bought a Korean DVD of this, without realising at the time that I was running the risk of having Korean-only subtitles and thus having to follow the original French. Fortunately that wasn't so, although at first it was a shock to find myself understanding a foreign language that wasn't Japanese. Imagine some rust-covered engine lurching painfully into life. I haven't used my French in quite a while.
It's not easy to describe this film without citing Tim Burton. Facing the challenge, I suppose I'd have to call it The Wizard of Oz filtered through a flamboyantly over-the-top French bastard grandson of German Expressionism. It's hard not to go on about the visuals, since it's so outrageously stylish. It creates two worlds: the reality of Belle's village and the Beast's magical castle. The former is fun, but the latter is simply a fairy tale. Hands come out of the tables and walls to serve you. Objects float in mid-air. The Beast's fur will sometimes be smoking for no reason that I could see, like a vampire who's got caught in the sun. Cocteau goes apeshit with live practical effects and all kinds of camera trickery. Even for a modern audience, our first look at the teleporting glove in action is a "what did I just see?" moment. The sheer density of effects is overwhelming.
The results are far more magical than the 1991 Disney version. That film just feels like Disney being Disney. The talking teapot has a comedy sidekick. It's exactly what you'd expect. However this is done in dreamy black-and-white with live actors and every kind of whacked-out French shit. I can't think of another film that feels more like a fairy tale than this.
However at the same time, it's also a hell of a lot of fun. I'd been half-expecting to have to endure a load of arty French nonsense, but as a fairy tale, it's full of life. Belle's home life is a pantomime, albeit presented realistically. Her father is Baron Hardup, her brother is Buttons and she has two Ugly Sisters. Admittedly the parallel isn't exact since they're actually quite attractive, but they're appropriately spoiled and vindictive. This is exactly what the film needed and again a huge improvement on Belle's home life in the Disney version. These guys are a riot. I loved them to pieces. Oh, and Buttons has a friend who proposes to Belle and gets rebuffed because she's dedicated to looking after her father.
One thing I particularly like about them is that there's no villain, not even the regrettably hook-nosed Jewish stereotype who sends in the bailiffs to clean out Baron Hardup. They're just people. When Buttons and his friend decide to kill the Beast and steal his treasure, they're not boo-hiss villains like Disney's Gaston. You like them. They're self-professed scoundrels, but you understand why they're doing this and you're on their side despite the fact that you don't want them to succeed. This is more subtlety than you'd expect in fairy tales, which tend to avoid moral ambiguities and paint their motivations in primary colours.
However for the ending, this ambiguity gets turned up to the force of a nuclear blast zone. I watched this with my parents and afterwards we had two intelligent adults (plus Mum) all disagreeing about what we'd seen, what it meant and whether or not the film was suitable for young children. I don't want to give away too many details, but I'd been expecting the Disney ending. It's a fairy tale. Everyone knows what's going to happen, right? However though, Jean Cocteau has one actor playing three roles: the Beast's two forms and also the friend of Buttons who'd proposed to Belle in the beginning. Why? What's the meaning of what happens to them? Is the dead guy really dead? I don't think there's meant to be one answer to all that. Personally I think the film's showing us a time loop or an infinite chain of succession, but this never occurred to my parents even if I suspect some children might also come away with similar assumptions, in an unformed fairy tale logic kind of way.
All these are plus points. Gaston's vaguely amusing, but Cocteau's version of Belle's home life is clearly superior. We also don't have to put up with that forced opening song about Belle being a modern independent-minded feminist that's trying and failing to fulfil the same role as Ariel's Part Of Your World. The Beast's castle is the most magical thing you'll see on a cinema screen, rather than just another cartoon. The ending is complicated, deep and hard to interpret without taking a step away from literal narrative.
Those are all reasons why this is a better, or at least more interesting, film than the Disney one. Nonetheless despite everything I prefer Disney's, because of the central relationship. To be blunt about it, Cocteau's Belle and Bete are the least interesting things about this film, despite being supposedly the lead characters. I like the Beast's beast-ness, drinking water on all fours and wanting to hunt and kill passing deer. However his voice sounds silly and his make-up makes him look like the Cowardly Lion. Admittedly his hair doesn't look so bad when he's dressing down, but when he's wearing the full ruff and/or collar he looks like a twonk. Furthermore the narrative will occasionally skip forward a week and leave us to work it out, while I thought Belle's emotional journey was under-developed. In particular I wasn't convinced by her temporary decision not to return to the castle as promised, if indeed we're meant to be taking that as a conscious decision on her part in the first place.
Oh, and "dressing down" in the context of this film means only wearing as much finery as royalty in a Restoration comedy. Did I say Belle's home life was realistic? I forgot the Ugly Sisters' costume department.
There are some nice story touches. The Beast threatens to kill either Baron Hardup or whatever daughter he sends instead, which is a startling change from the Disney version. I don't know how much sense it makes, but that's the Beast for you. It also yields an amusing discussion as Buttons and the Ugly Sisters wonder who should go. Belle isn't an only child in this version, remember? Unfortunately this interesting death threat gets completely forgotten, with even Belle seemingly having decided even before arriving at the castle that the Beast must have been joking.
I also liked the fact that when Belle pleads with the Beast to be allowed home to see her father, that's not sentimentality. Baron Hardup's dying by degrees because his daughter went off to the castle and her going back does save his life.
Overall, this is a fascinating film. It's better in the first half, before Belle's met the Beast, but it's a wildly imaginative version of a classic tale. It's also full of jokes, although I don't know if I was meant to laugh at the Beast's animatronic ears. It fares better than I'd expected with a final scene that never ever works, since I've never seen a version of this story that doesn't leave me wishing the Beast hadn't turned human after all. Greta Garbo said of this film, "Give me back my Beast!" Giving that triple role to Jean Marais makes it an interesting scene, at any rate. I think the film falls down somewhat with its realisation of the central relationship, which is always a problem but doubly so with a love story, but it's still a film I admire. However to judge it properly, I think it needs to be shown to small children.