Three The Great Movies reviews in a row? I’m on a roll. Today’s entry from Roger Ebert’s cataloging of essential films is Beauty and the Beast. But it’s probably not the one you’re thinking of. For clarity’s sake, let’s refer to today’s film as La Belle et la Bête, so as to remember we are talking about Jean Cocteau’s 1946 live action film, rather than the 1991 animated musical.
The story is roughly the same as the one you remember from the Disney film: a beautiful girl, Belle (Josette Day), offers to take the place of her father (Marcel André) as the captive of a hideous Beast (Jean Marais, in a dual role, also playing Avenant, a rough analog for the newer film’s Gaston). The mismatched pair slowly form a bond that ignorant interlopers try to crush.
One huge difference between the two pictures is the usage of personified household objects to aid the couple in their uniting. Cocteau forgoes this conceit in favor of disembodied arms and faces spread throughout Beast’s castle. The director and his design team use this as an opportunity to innovate some pretty impressive makeup and practical effects. These effects are perhaps the main reason to revisit the film today. In this era filled with computer graphics, it is very refreshing to see effects that are tricks of the camera and perspective, rather than a bunch of goshdarned ones and zeros.
Now I’ll be uncomfortably honest here, I’ve never read the original fairy tale that all of the film and television adaptations of this story are based on. I know, I know. What am I thinking? What happened to journalistic integrity and due diligence? Well I am neither a journalist nor diligent, so get over it. Regardless of the original, another intriguing difference between the two movies is the revelation of Beast’s backstory. In the Disney version, Beast’s human nature is literally the first thing we see, while in La Belle et la Bête, Belle (and the audience) only find out after Beast transforms back into a man. The withholding of information makes Belle’s acceptance of the creature more admirable (one of the only words that can be used to describe a pretty underdeveloped character), but it kind of comes out of nowhere. It is the kind of development that only works in a fairy tale.
But Cocteau makes no qualms about the film’s nature. The feature opens with Cocteau addressing the audience, entreating them to watch the film with a bit of the childlike wonder the older viewers may have lost over the years. Cocteau gives us permission to enjoy the movie on its most base, entertaining level, and it is nice to be able to do so. Otherwise all of the shifty-eyed sculptures and hand-held chandeliers wouldn’t be quite as wonderful.