Beauty and the Beast (1946)
It's easy to forget about how many times "Beauty and the Beast" was told on screen when Disney's juggernaut of a film (and it is quite something, to be fair) holds the place in most people's mind as the original. The animated version is a force in of itself, but it was made in a time when fairy tales and magic stories were accepted easily. The far more audacious and haunting picture, Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast" or "La belle et la bête" is something of a mystery, existing in its own slightly melodramatic and quite eerie world.
Made in the thick of WWII with practically no budget, this is one of the few classic films to escape France from that time period, and possible the most well know besides "The Rules of the Game".
"Beauty and the Beast" begins with a Cinderella-like story. Belle (Josette Day) is the youngest daughter of a dysfunctional family. She doesn't get to go out to trip the lights fantastic with her two sisters. She has to stay home and scrub the floors; but this doesn't really bother her and she is liked better than the other two girls anyways. She has more attention from male suitors...one of them actually proposes to her; but she refuses because she thinks that her father needs her around.
After his ship comes in, literally, Belle's father goes off on a voyage into the woods, which are quite confusing and frightening in the dark. He comes to a foreboding castle that seems magical. Doors open before him and candelabras are held out of the wall by human arms that move. He finds a dining area and is served wine by a hand that sticks through the table.
The way that the castle moves is quite surrealist, until you remember that everything is magical. The castle is shot in a dream-scape fashion, sometimes in slow motion and not allowing the characters to walk...it's quite an achievement.
When you conjure up the Disney rendition of "Beauty and the Beast" and compare it to this, there is much more personification happening. Jean Cocteau's version shows how magic doesn't always have to have a face or a voice.
Belle's father goes out into the garden and calls for the owner of the house, who doesn't answer him. He sees a rose on a bush and plucks it for his youngest daughter and that's when the beast appears. Fuzzy, ferocious, and fuming—the beast (Jean Marais) appears from behind the bushes and claims that because he loves the roses so much he will kill Belle's father for picking them; yet he's generous enough to give the father fifteen minutes to prepare for death.
After much sobbing and begging, the beast says that if one of the man's daughters will take his place, he will spare the man's life...but will probably kill the daughter.
Belle's father returns home and tells his family this, who are somewhat distressed at the news. Belle had asked for a rose before her father left and she feels partly guilty because of it, so she decides to steal away in the dead of night and go to the castle. Riding the magical horse, Magnificent, she returns to the castle and faints upon sight of the beast. The first glimpse that we have of the castle is a slow-motion scene in which Belle dashes down the corridors while the magic of the building mystifies her...it's eerie and effective.
But then, we start to see some of the old resemblances. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and curses of ugliness that fade away don't hurt the situation.
"Beauty and the Beast" is almost too much; but I think that's the point of it. It's a glorious tribute to fantasy and love and the fairy tale has never been quite so hypnotic.
Posted by Micah Jones