Sunday, 3 August 2014

NZIFF Classic Film Review: "Beauty and the Beast" ("La Belle et la Bête") (1946).



For my twelfth and final entry for the NZIFF, I have watched, what I consider, the most beautifully gothic and possibly the best take on the classic fairy-tale, Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête, or Beauty and the Beast. “Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause the beast shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things. I ask of you a little of this childlike simplicity, and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood's open sesame: "Once upon a time..."” This scroll, about the essence of a child’s love for fairy tales and fairy tales itself, opens this 1946 French romantic fantasy, an adaptation of the traditional fairy tale of the same name, written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and published in 1757 as part of a fairy tale anthology (Le Magasin des Enfants, ou Dialogues entre une sage gouvernante et ses élèves, London 1757). Directed by French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, the film stars Josette Day as Belle and Jean Marais. The plot of Cocteau's film revolves around Belle's father who is sentenced to death for picking a rose from Beast's garden. Belle offers to go back to the Beast in her father's place. Beast falls in love with her and proposes marriage on a nightly basis which she refuses. Belle eventually becomes more drawn to Beast, who tests her by letting her return home to her family and telling her that if she doesn't return to him within a week, he will die of grief.

This film adaptation of La Belle et la Bete adds a subplot involving Belle's suitor Avenant, who schemes along with Belle's brother and sisters to journey to Beast's castle to kill him and capture his riches while the sisters work to delay Belle's return to the castle. When Avenant enters the magic pavilion which is the source of Beast's power, he is struck by an arrow fired by a guardian statue of the Roman goddess Diana, which transforms Avenant into Beast as Belle declares her love for the Beast and reverses the original Beast's curse. When the Beast comes back to life and becomes human at the end, he transforms into a Prince Charming with Avenant's handsome features, but without his oafish personality. The adaptation also borrows from La Chatte Blanche by Marie-Cathérine d'Aulnoy, published in Les Contes des Fées, Paris 1697-1698, in which servants, previously magically reduced to their arms and hands, still perform all servants' chores. In the original tale, Belle has three brothers, whereas in the film, she only has one. Also in the original tale, Belle and her family are forced to move to a farmstead in the countryside after the loss of their fortune; in the film, they continue to live in their townhouse. Also in the original tale, the sisters are turned into statues as punishment for their cruelty, whereas in the film, they are merely forced to carry the train of Belle's gown at her wedding, though it is implied that they will now be her servants. In the fairytale, Belle repeatedly has dreams about a handsome prince (the Beast in his true form) imploring her to love the Beast, to which she replies she cannot. She believes this Prince is, like herself, a captive in the Beast's castle and searches for him during the day. This does not occur in the film. Jean Marais originally suggested to Cocteau for the beast to have a stag's head, obviously remembering a detail in the fairy tale La Chatte blanche: The knocker at the gate to the castle of the princess/The White Cat has the form of a roe's foot. While this suggestion followed the narrative lines of its fairy tale origin and would have evoked the mythical echo of Cernunnos, the Celtic stag-headed god of the woods. Marais' idea was nonetheless refused by Cocteau who feared that in the eyes of modern cinema audiences a stag's head would turn the beast into a laughing-stock.

Beauty and the Beast is a priceless fabric of subtle images, a fabric of gorgeous visual metaphors, of undulating movements and rhythmic pace, of hypnotic sounds and music, of casually congealing ideas. the dialogue, in French, is spare and simple, with the story largely told in pantomime, and the music of Georges Auric accompanies the dreamy, fitful moods. Jean Cocteau's film remains the most seductive version of the classic Gothic Romance tale. Conjuring pure magic from the simplest of effects, the film's Beast makeup is so perfectly detailed that you forget the fact that those longing eyes staring out from it belong to a man (more specifically, the film's male lead Jean Marais). The settings are likewise expressive, many of the exteriors having been filmed for rare architectural vignettes at Raray, one of the most beautiful palaces and parks in all France. And the costumes, too, by Christian Bérard and Escoffier, are exquisite affairs, glittering and imaginative. The film is a wondrous spectacle for children of any language, and quite a treat for their parents, too. But yet it's not exactly a film for children, however it is one generations of children have enjoyed. And it has the ability, just like Disney films, to bring out the child in adults. Cocteau's first full-length movie is perhaps the most sensuously elegant of all filmed fairy tales. As a child can escape from everyday life to the magic of a storybook, so, in the film, Beauty's farm with its Vermeer simplicity, fades in intensity as we are caught up in the Gustave Doré extravagance of the Beast's enchanted landscape. In Christian Berard's makeup, Marais is a magnificent beast, giving us a Beast who is lonely like a man and misunderstood like an animal; Beauty's sacrifice to him holds no more horror than a satisfying romantic fantasy should have. The film is as much a feat of feverish delight as it was in the dark days of Vichy and World War II: a magical passage to another, more impassioned and bewitching era. "Astonish Me!" was Cocteau's special motto. Astonish us he does in this film.

Simon says Beauty and the Beast receives:


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