With the UK release of Christophe Gans new version of the Beauty and the Beast myth still a few months away, thought I'd revisit Cocteau's 1946 classic.
La Belle et La Bete (1946)
Director: Jean Cocteau
For those only familiar with the Beauty and the Beast fable from Disney’s 1991 Oscar nominated animated cartoon, Cocteau’s La Belle at La Bete will be a revelation. The plot possesses the darkness, surreal romanticism and eroticism of the original fairytale (often attributed to Perrault), combined with stunning photography, lavish costumes and sets and an array of startling special effects. It is worth bearing in mind when watching this film, that not only was it made more than half a century ago, but that it was filmed in the war-devastated France of 1945.
Belle (Josette Day) has been reduced to cleaning and cooking for her two cruel sisters Adélaide (Mila Parely), Félicie (Nane Germon) and her wastrel of a brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair) whilst also fending off the attentions of her brother’s handsome but ultimately lazy friend Avenant (Jean Marais). Times are hard as their father’s business is failing and debts are mounting. Their father (Marcel André) hears that one of ships has arrived to shore safely and promises his three daughters to return with presents for all. The two greedy daughters demand dresses and jewellery, Belle asks for a simple rose.
However, his business meeting didn’t go as well as planned and soon finds himself broke, travelling home alone at night. When his horse leads him into the grounds of a Gothic castle, he finds himself being lit by candelabra held by human hands. They lead him to a sumptuous meal served by disembodied hands. After eating, he leaves in search of his horse, and it is then he spies a single rose. Whilst picking it for his daughter he incurs the wroth of the Castle’s owner, The Beast (Jean Marais). The Beast demands this crime is punishable by death and he must be prepared to die in fifteen minutes unless he promises one of his daughters will take his place.
Into this strange castle, Belle comes. Is she the girl to melt the Beast’s heart? Can Belle look beyond the Beast’s appearance to find her prince? Well of course she is. This is, after all, a fairytale - but ultimately a dark one. The Beast does not want to see Belle during the day. He only repeatedly appears at 7 ‘o’ clock to watch her eat, and ask her each night the question “Will you marry me?”
Belle and the beast are fully realised characters, which unfold across the screen. Characters with a past, a present and therefore a future. Their romance is touching and tragic. Once he falls in love, he lets her go – but only for a week. Returning to her dying father, she falls into a trap laid by her sisters and soon finds herself breaking her promise to The Beast. As he too begins to die (from grief) she returns just in time to save him.
But why oh why did the Beast have to be transformed from the ‘man’ we’d all fallen for, into the rather bland generic hero (also played by Jean Marais). A good film, eerily atmospheric both in age and style, but the ending, though satisfying, is also a little disappointing for a such a fine film.
It will interesting to see how Gans approaches the material in his new version starring Vincent Cassel and Lea Seydoux. Check out the trailer…