With Bill Condon’s new live-action adaptation of Beauty in the Beast now in theaters, I imagine most cinemagoers have no idea that it isn’t the first. And sure, we all know and love the Disney animated version, one of the few animated films to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award [the only one before the category’s expansion in 2010]. But for me, Jean Cocteau’s La belle et la bête is the Beauty and the Beast story that is the most cinematic, the most magical, the most romantic. And it doesn’t need a talking candlestick, either.
While it is clear most folks heading to the theater this week aren’t aware of the 1946 film, what about true hardcore film geeks? The film’s presence in the Criterion Collection [and an early member at spine #6] has certainly done wonders for its profile today—that is exactly how I discovered the film as a budding cinephile. Still, I don’t know if it is talked about enough in film circles. The same could be said about its auteur, Jean Cocteau, one of the most underrated visionaries in film. Part of that is likely output, as Cocteau only made nine features, most of them not easily seen today. His bizarre and surreal Orpheus trilogy, along with Beauty and the Beast, show his unique vision and artistic sensibility.
Narratively, this version of the story doesn’t stray from the basics. A beautiful young woman becomes captive to a horrible beast as punishment for her father plucking a rose on its grounds. Over time, she learns that there is much more depth to the Beast, who is more sad than frightening. The power of her love eventually breaks the Beast’s curse, transforming him back into the young prince trapped underneath the fur and fangs, and they live happily together, etc. What makes this version of the story special isn’t just this tried-and-true tale [though it is undoubtedly told well, with all the dramatic and romantic beats you’re looking for], but Cocteau’s wonderful direction and purely cinematic playfulness. He builds this magical world through the magic of cinema.
I’ve studied Beauty and the Beast intently enough and seen it often enough to see how many of Cocteau’s wonderful tricks are pulled off, but it is still so easy to get entirely wrapped up by them. Their simple, practical nature is stunning. Cocteau employs a diverse bounty of effects to build this fantastic world, such as using real bodies as statues or candle holders, editing in reverse, double exposure, wind and smoke effects, and shooting through gauze to get a precise look. Most of this stuff wasn’t breaking cinematic ground and would never be the preferred methods with enhanced technology today, but it all works so perfectly here.
There might not be a sequence in all of film that hits me more than Belle’s arrival and slow-motion floating through the Beast’s castle. It’s just so damned beautiful, full of the fantasy and wonder that makes Beauty and the Beast a timeless story. And it leads wonderfully into the uncertainty Belle feels for this magic around her, eventually to the horror of seeing the Beast for the first time. This mixed tone tends to work well with fairy tales—it’s no coincidence that horror films like Pan’s Labyrinth dive deep into these types of stories, but since most fairy tales are used as children’s stories it is rare to see a film working on this level.
I also can’t talk about this film without talking about its stars, Jean Marais and Josette Day, two actors I know from little else. Day is perfect as Belle, a naturally beautiful presence with a lot of emotional strength. In the film’s most crucial moments, she has to convey complicated emotions without much dialogue—we have to see this world through her eyes, understand its magic and its oddity. For Marais, he is obviously restricted by the intense costuming of the Beast, but his expressive eyes are more than enough to characterize the character’s infinite sadness. Cocteau shoots the actor’s face with tenderness and sexual desire, whether he’s as the Beast or Belle’s would-be lover Avenant—it is a rare connection between filmmaker and muse that literally shows itself on screen.
So, if you headed to the theater this past weekend to catch the new Beauty and the Beast, I urge you to go back. For those with the criticism that Condon’s film doesn’t break new ground or do anything cinematically to transcend the tale as old as time, La belle et la bête is exactly what you’re looking for, whether you know about it or not.
Here is what we'll have for you this week:
- The Cinessential Podcast, Episode 11
- A full review of the newest Beauty and the Beast
- More on the magic of the film's practical effects
- An essay on how cinematic fairy tales aren't just for kids
- And more!