‘Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête)’: At Odds with Itself

Before director Jean Cocteau presents his imaginative take on Beauty and the Beast (1946), he asks members of the audience to open their minds and suspend their typical beliefs. The message comes across as more warning than suggestion. Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (or La Belle et la Bête) remains a bizarre, eerie and unusual film; one filled with dark characters, troubling themes and some truly awe-inspiring visuals. Here is a film at odds with itself in that it wants to tell a whimsical fairy tale, but is more concerned with set design than crafting likable personalities. Personally, I missed Lumiere, Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts.

It’s easy to see why the original Beauty and the Beast story struck such a chord in audiences (a quick IMDB search reveals a seemingly endless list of adaptations, including the popular Linda Hamilton/Ron Perlman-starring TV show from the late ’80s). The tale of a beautiful young woman who falls for a malevolent monster, after becoming his captor and learning to appreciate who he is inside, is one of those secret fantasies all young women apparently seem to harbor (see Twilight, The Phantom of the Opera or the recent Beastly for similar examples). Who doesn’t want to meet and fall in love with a furry old beast living in a dark and dreary castle? Who could resist his delicate inner-personality hidden behind a hideous, growling, drooling mask?

In reality, most women wouldn’t give this man a chance (his bark would probably scare them off), but this is cinema, where characters are written based on the material at hand, not reality.

Cocteau’s film follows the original story (written and adapted by numerous authors – Wikipedia credits Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve with the first published version) quite closely. Belle (Josette Day), named for her beautiful appearance and personality, is taken prisoner by the Beast (Jean Marais), a once-handsome prince now condemned to a horrific life coughing up hairballs. Over time the two come to respect one another, and reveal a twinge of love further enhanced when Belle’s evil sisters attempt to kill the Beast for his locked-away treasures.

The story more or less plays on the concept of inner-beauty being more powerful than outside appearance. Through it all, Cocteau does his best to enhance this theme, portraying Belle as a simple-minded personality who yearns less for diamond necklaces than a poverty-stricken life with her father. It goes without saying that lessons are learned, inner-desires exposed; and it all culminates with Belle draped over her dying captor ostensibly proclaiming her love.

What it all means I’m less than certain. Are we supposed to love everyone, even our kidnappers? If a man came into a home and took away someone’s daughter and then attempted to woe her with his … er … civilized personality, would we condone his actions? Probably not. Of course, Cocteau realizes the outlandishness of his story, hence the aforementioned warning, but even the most pretentious fairy tales need to follow a relatable path.

Where Disney’s 1991 adaptation worked was is in its depiction of the Beast. The story took time to flesh out his character, a man cursed with a violent temper who eventually learns compassion, thanks to Belle’s god-like patience. A scene in that film has Belle fleeing the castle, only to be attacked by wolves and subsequently saved by the Beast. The point being: we understand why Belle eventually develops sympathy for this monster. At that moment her stint in the castle became less an imprisonment than a curious, prolonged adventure (something the character wished for early on).

Cocteau presents no such character developments. In his film, Belle and the Beast wander about a haunted castle containing live hands clinging to candelabras, and (in one sequence) Thing from The Adams Family – who spends his (her?) days pouring drinks from atop a table. It all looks supremely spectacular, but never do we understand Belle’s yearning for the Beast. Perhaps it’s the way he pronounces her name with such relish (“Beeellllll!”), or ogles her from his magical mirror. Or maybe she just digs his Beast pad, as the numerous vignettes of Belle listlessly wandering through the castle’s dark corridors suggest.

Cocteau doesn’t care either way. He wants to blow your mind with snazzy, creative FX, and slick production designs. To this end the man succeeds admirably. Beauty and the Beast is dazzling to behold; a potent mix of Tim Burton visual flair and old school Hammer-style horror. It’s not exactly romantic, nor is it scary, but at least the film carries a noticeable personality, bizarre though it may be.

You won’t walk away from this film touched by the characters’ change of heart. Instead, you’ll marvel at the lighting, the sets and the costumes; you’ll laugh at the way Cocteau fetishizes his stars, especially lead actor Jean Marais, who plays both the Beast and Avenant (or this film’s Gaston-equivalent), even while appreciating all the hard work that went into crafting the overall production.

I was dazzled by the technical prowess on display and Josette Day’s splendid performance. Otherwise the film felt cold and distant. Like the moving statues peering from the castle walls, Beauty and the Beast is splendid to look at, but curiously lacking in heart and soul.

Beauty and the Beast: The Criterion Edition more or less carries over the extra material presented on the standard DVD 2003 release (namely commentaries by film scholar Arthur Knight and Sir Christopher Frayling, both of which offer some intriguing explanations as to why Beauty and the Beast is one of film’s greatest treasures). The Blu-ray presents the film in high-definition 1080p, and it looks and sounds glorious. The transfer is clean, allowing Cocteau’s visuals to pop out like never before.

Philip Glass’ hypnotic (and slightly overbearing) operatic score has never sounded better, presented as it is in 5.1 digital surround sound. The disc comes with a slick booklet offering more insight into the production. Needless to say, if you’re a fan of this movie then this is the defining set for you. It’s hard to imagine the film ever looking better than it does here, but then I said that when it was released back in 2003.

Beauty and the Beast remains a frustrating piece of cinema. Everything about the production is top notch, except in its demonstration of heart and soul. I admire the film for its look and visual razzle dazzle. This really is creative filmmaking 101, and something all lovers of cinema should explore (note that Empire listed the film #26 in its list of “The 100 Best Films of World Cinema” and Roger Ebert features it in his “Greatest Movies” collection). Maybe you’ll connect to the characters more than I did. Maybe I’m just being beastly.

RATING 6 / 10