Monday, March 21, 2011

Monday at the Movies: Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast" (1946)

The trailer so you get a better idea of the moving visuals. Truly a work of art.

In keeping with the popularity of fairytale films for adult audiences (read: Red Riding Hood, Beastly), I thought it fitting to look at the definitive fairytale film and one of my personal faves, Jean Cocteau's 1946 art house classic, La Belle et la BĂȘte (Beauty and the Beast). There are so many reasons to see his movie I can hardly find where to begin. I suppose I should start by saying that everyone--seriously--every version of this story in film has copied Cocteau's version: Fairytale Theater, Cannon Movie Tales, and of course, Disney (though the Disney version does this the least and is far more subtle, in my pov). This is how far this film's influence has extended over the years.

The Beast gives Belle the Golden Key as a symbol of his love and trust in her.

Perhaps the reason Cocteau's fairytale remains the standard is because it is both hauntingly surreal and perfectly human. Belle as acted by Josette Day is not just a humble, self-effacing peasant girl--she truly is brave and by the end learns the importance of following her own path rather than constantly sacrificing for others. Day's physical acting was also terrific, as much of what needed to be conveyed in the story was done silently through a gesture or a glance. Her Beast, her oafish village suitor Avenant and the Prince Ardent at the end of the film are all played by Jean Marais (brilliantly, might I add). The director wanted to make the Beast so real and pathetically human under all his monstrosity that when the transformation does occur, Belle (and consequently the audience) almost misses his previous form. Avenant is ultimately transformed into a beast himself when Prince Ardent comes back, the latter retaining the former's good looks but not his bad attitude.

Belle mesmerized by the Beast's spellbound castle.

The atmosphere of the film is expressive and surreal--the candles on the wall move by themselves, statues around the castle come to life and all moves on its own as if controlled by some unseen force. This is something best described as "frighteningly beautiful." The final scene wherein Prince Ardent flies through the heavens with Belle to his kingdom is reminiscent of the spiraling paintings of Raphael (current to the period the story is set in). It's almost like the Seventh Seal meets Disney: a charming visualization of the fairytale genre, but done with the intent of making an artistic masterpiece that touches on very grown-up, real-world emotions and ideas. If you haven't seen Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, I suggest you find a copy, turn out all the lights and let yourself experience this extraordinary film.

Belle and her prince fly through the air to their faraway kingdom.

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