10 Classics to see for the first time in 2013: the French film LA BELLE ET LA BETE -- otherwise known as BEAUTY AND THE BEAST -- directed by Jean Cocteau.
I included BEAUTY AND THE BEAST on this year's list as, bit by bit, I've been stretching out of my comfort zone and trying some foreign films, such as the German-language SISSI series and THE STORY OF VICKIE (1954), all starring Romy Schneider; more recently I've watched Japanese films directed by Yasujiro Ozu and found them rewarding viewing.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST seemed like an "accessible" choice for trying a French film, as it's a favorite fairytale. I have previously reviewed two other editions of the story: the 1976 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV version starring George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere, and the 1991 animated Disney musical.
I'd previously read that Cocteau's '40s version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was, well, magical, and I'm glad to say it did not disappoint. It was mesmerizing, a rich cinematic viewing experience. I'm looking forward to revisiting it again with a commentary track in order to take in more of the film's themes and details.
I admit I initially had to get past some discomfort with the film's opening visuals. The costumes may have been appropriate to the time and place, but the gowns and hats worn by the ladies in the early scenes were quite unattractive. An even bigger issue for me was the "living" furniture in the Beast's castle, which, to speak colloquially, gave me the creeps. I really didn't enjoy looking at that mantelpiece by the fire...!
However, such is the film's power that from the moment Belle arrived at the castle, the film lured me in and didn't let go. Just as Belle gradually fell under the spell of the Beast, getting over his looks to see the man inside, I too looked past initial appearances and ultimately found the movie quite beautiful.
Josette Day, who plays Belle, has a rare grace, moving through her role almost as a ballet dancer. This provides a particularly effective contrast with the rough-hewn Beast. Day's performance was interesting in that underneath her beauty and poignant bravery, Belle is an adventurous spirit; just as Disney's Belle loved vicarious adventures via her books, this Belle clearly wanted to experience something different from her dreary life and was willing to work past her fears in order to do it. Her trip to the Beast's castle was, perhaps, not simply a matter of saving her father but of finding something for herself. The desire for adventure was more overtly underlined in the dialogue of the film's final moments.
Jean Marais plays not only the Beast, but Avenant, a family friend who wishes to marry Belle, which made for some curious thematic elements I'm still puzzling out. Belle seems to like Avenant but claims she cannot leave her father to marry; she actually seems more fearful of marriage than of going to the Beast's castle. (Spoiler alert re ending) Unlike the later versions of the film, it is Avenant's death which releases the Beast from his curse, turning him into a prince who looks just like Avenant. I'd like to see the film again to pick up on themes such as Belle turning down Avenant yet perhaps subconsciously wanting him, and having Avenant and the Beast meld into one person who will take Belle on an adventure.
Belle's father was portrayed by Marcel Andre, her brother by Michel Auclair, and her sisters by Mila Parely and Nane Germon.
In addition to directing, Jean Cocteau also wrote the screenplay. IMDb also says there is uncredited directing work by Rene Clement. The cinematography was by Henri Alekan.
The movie is available from Criterion in several editions: a DVD with plentiful extras, including two commentary tracks; a less expensive Essential Art House DVD with the extras stripped out; or on Blu-ray. A trailer can be seen at the Criterion site.
The DVD can be rented from Netflix or ClassicFlix; the movie can also be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video. There have also been multiple VHS releases.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST has also been shown on Turner Classic Movies.
Highly recommended as creative, elegant filmmaking which lingers in the mind.