Saturday, February 27, 2010

Love Stories: Where is My Beast? Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946)

This 1946 version of the beloved fairytale Beauty and the Beast, directed by Jean Cocteau, noted artist, poet and filmmaker, is considered to be his masterpiece, which brilliantly blended his personal artistic vision and the elements of wondrous fantasy and enchantment. Cocteau felt that this motion picture would not only help revive the once thriving French cinema but also brighten the lives of his fellow Frenchman who endured six years of cultural darkness under the Nazi occupation. Along with his set decorator, costume designer, composer, and with a little help from famed director, Rene Clement, Cocteau managed to produce a magnificent and enduring evocation of the story''s magical world and the characters who inhabit it.

The idea for a film adaptation came from Cocteau's lover, the actor Jean Marais, and Cocteau believed that this would provide a showcase for Marais' talents, as he would be playing three roles; Avenant, Belle's roguish suitor, the beast, and the prince. For the role of Bellle Cocteau chose Josette Day, who possessed a wholesome and appealing loveliness and in addition had experience as a ballerina.

Filming began in the summer of 1945 not long after the end of World War II. Equipment and material needed for motion pictures was practically nonexistent; cameras, fabric for costumes, film stock and even electricity presented logistic challenges. Cocteau and his talented crew brilliantly utilized the resources available to them. The special effects, disembodied arms protrude from the wall holding candelabras, statues come to life, doors open and close, magic mirrors, and beautiful ball gowns created for Belle by invisible seamstresses, all contributed to the otherworldly aura that Cocteau envisioned for the beast's castle. His desire to have every scene in the film reflect the work of the Dutch Masters, especially Vermeer, were also beautifully realized. A major challenge was the creation of the beast's make up. The filmmakers were lucky enough to find an elderly craftsman who worked painstakingly to create a visage that both defined the contours of Marais' facial structure, but also clearly represented the beast's menacing nature. His brilliantly lit and expressive eyes remained the only visible features of his face.

Other than a few tweaks by Cocteau the scenario follows the basic storyline of the centuries-old tale. We meet Belle's family who are now living in reduced circumstances due to the father's series of financial losses. Belle has two greedy and self-serving sisters and a lazy but ambitious brother. The father has been informed that one of his ships safely reached port and he is summoned to collect his riches. Two of the daughters ask him to bring them valuable presents, while Belle simply asks for a rose. Unfortunately, when the merchant arrives at the docks he is told that his fortune has been handed over to his creditors to pay his outstanding debts and that there is nothing left for him. Forced to return home at night he loses his way and comes upon a mysterious castle in the deep woods. When he calls out he is answered by what sounds like a low roar, and though frightened, he enters the beasts domain, where he finds himself faced with the many magical elements that occupy the beasts living quarters. Although a lavish display of food has been prepared for him, he's too tired to eat and falls asleep. Upon awakening he hastily prepares to return home when he comes across a glorious garden with an unusual rose bush bearing stunning white roses and he picks one for his daughter Belle. Suddenly there is a loud roar and the beast appears, telling the father that plucking a rose is punishable by death. He offers the father a reprieve if he will send one of his daughters to replace him. The merchant is given the use of a horse named Magnificent, who will take him back to his family. Upon arriving home he is chastised by his two daughters and his son for not killing the beast and stealing his riches. Amidst the bickering and accusations the devoted Belle slips away on Magnificent and is transported to the beast's domain.

Belle's odyssey through the various rooms is presented in slow motion creating a dreamlike sequence as she encounters all the enchanted objects occupying every part of the castle. When the beast appears to her she is horrified at first, but he treats her with gentleness and kindness, which allays her fear. He declares that he will join her for supper every evening at seven o'clock and will ask her to marry him each night. As time passes Belle develops a fondness for this creature in whom she recognizes a passionate but impossible desire to be human. The beast has fallen in love with Belle and it becomes increasingly difficult for him to stay away from her, exemplified by one horrific incident when the beast, fresh from a kill, bloodied and feverish, appears at Belle's bedroom door. Shame overwhelms him and he cries out to Belle to close her door. Belle finds herself eagerly awaiting the presence of the beast at dinner even though she refuses his proposal every time he asks. Indeed Belle has quite unconsciously developed a fondness for her captor.

One day the magic mirror discloses to Belle that her father has been gravely ill since her departure and is now on the verge of death. She implores the beast to allow her to visit her father, promising to return. He grants her wish allowing her eight days away from him stating that if she does not return he will die of grief. He gives her the two most valuable objects in his life, the golden key that opens the door to the building which stores his vast wealth; and his glove, which will transport her back to the castle. Belle's return invigorates her father and he makes a recovery; while by his side she sheds tears that turn to diamonds. The rest of her family is not pleased by her return knowing what a great fortune is within their grasp. Avenant joins the plot to murder the beast and steal his riches. The sisters in an attempt to detain Belle so that she will miss her deadline to return, use onions to elicit phony tears as they plead with her to stay. Meanwhile, they have stolen the golden key and given it to Avenant and their brother.

A tormented Beast sends Magnificent to bring Belle back to him, but when the horse arrives, the two would-be thieves mount him and head for the treasure. Afraid to open the door with the key, Avenant suggests that they enter the building through the skylight. By this time Belle has discovered her family's treachery and has also seen an image of the dying beast in the magic mirror that the Beast sent along with Magnificent. In a panic, she uses the glove to return to the Beast in time to save him. She is too late and the Beast is dead. As she cradles him in her arms and is about to declare her love for him, Avenant is killed by an arrow shot by a statue of the goddess Diana, the protector of the Beast's wealth. Belle's brother looks on in horror as the dying Avenant changes into the beast, while the Beast is resurrected as a handsome prince who looks exactly like Avenant. The prince and Belle float gracefully up to his kingdom where Belle will be his Queen.

A happy ending? Yes, but with qualifications. Belle is not overjoyed that the prince looks like Avenant. The prince is aware of this and asks her if she loved Avenant and she replies "Yes". When he asks if she loved the Beast, she also answers "Yes", but with a totally different tone of voice. Her delivery of the second 'yes' makes us believe that she would rather have the beast at her side than the Prince Charming who takes his place. She loved the beast for the gentle soul he truly was, and his ugliness was of no consequence. It is said that at the film's premiere, Greta Garbo shouted from the audience, "Where is my Beast?", echoing Belle's exact thoughts.


  1. Saz, this is a beautiful movie, both asthetically and narratively. I love Cocteau's movies, especially this and the Orphic trilogy. Thanks for highlighting it. Great review.

  2. Saz,this is a lovely tribute to one of the most lyrical, poetic films of all times! I'd never heard the Garbo story, but I suspect that most viewers (like me) echo her sentiment. It's an impressive film in all departments, but--as you pointed out--the set design and cinematopgraphy are truly magical. I truly believed in this enchanted world.

  3. Saz - I was overjoyed when I came to the Cafe this morning and saw this post - and I probably devoured it more than read it. It's a wonderful piece on a timeless work of art. I first saw Beauty and the Beast many years ago in a 'revival house' (do I miss those!) with a group of friends. All of the ladies among us fell madly for the beast and, like Beauty and Garbo, felt the Prince, though charming, was a letdown, romantically speaking. Excellent selection of artwork to illustrate Cocteau's visual influences, too - it seems to me that the interior scenes suggest Vermeer and the exteriors - particularly scenes of woods, paths, ruins and stone steps - evoke Gustave Dore. Thank you, Saz - great work.

  4. "La Belle et la Bete" makes the viewer feel like she/he is walking alongside the characters as the story ensues. It is mesmerizing, enchanting, and sometimes frightening as we encounter the world of the Beast. Then there is a shift as we reencounter the real world and discover its ugliness and greed. One cheers for the righteousness of Belle and the Beast. Avarice kills Avenant.

    I love the artistry of the black and white. The sets and costumes are exquisite and make the fantasy come to life. The story is lovely and believable, under Cocteau's masterful hand.

    Your tribute is impeccable, Saz. This is the perfect conclusion to a month of Love Stories.

  5. People have been recommending this movie to me, and I am so glad that I know French because it would be great to seea classic film of French cinema too.