Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University, UK)
‘Deserting the human race’: Introduction to La Belle et La Bête (Jean Cocteau, 1946)
Dukes cinema, 27th Jan, 2014
(This was the introduction I gave for the screening of a new digital restoration of this film, which was screened within a series of ‘Gothic’ films)
La Belle et La Bête (Beauty and the Beast) is the second of the six extant films that were directed by the prolific French poet, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, artist and director, Jean Cocteau.
The film is an adaptation of the French fairy-tale that was first published as a novella by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740 and then later reworked and shortened by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont. Published in 1756, this is the version of the story that has become the key source for all subsequent adaptations. Beauty and the Beast is one of the most well known examples of the ‘literary fairy tale’. These were first produced by groups of writers, chiefly aristocratic women, in 18th France who gathered in Salons. Thus they were initially intended for educated adult audiences, as upper-class women would entertain themselves and one another by retelling stories adapted from traditional folk tales, improvising and embellishing them. Storytelling in this context was a form of competitive intellectual game-playing as well as entertainment, a demonstration of the wit and creativity of the storyteller.
Literary historians have argued that these stories were often a coded means by which the women could imagine how their restricted lives might be improved – these fantasy narratives were a highly symbolic and oblique way of telling allegorical stories about contemporary reality as they experienced it. At a certain point in the 18th century, however, women such as Beaumont began transcribing and publishing the stories, which made them available to a wider audience and, in particular, to bourgeois and aristocratic children. As the audience for the stories changed, the function of them changed too so that one of the principal aims of the literary fairy tale became that of providing moral instruction to children – the very small minority of children who could read or were read to. For instance, the version of Beauty and the Beast that Cocteau worked from was published in a volume pointedly entitled, The Children’s Journal, or Conversations between a wise governess and several of her pupils of the highest quality.
There are certain features that came to characterise the literary fairy tale: they were short (so that they were reproducible – they could be easily read and memorised and lend themselves to retelling and adaptation); they were didactic or instructional (teaching the readers certain values or ideologies); and, in particular, they restate repeatedly the message that power lies naturally with the aristocracy.
For instance, in terms of its ideological significance, Beaumont’s version, is often understood as a story that asserts the importance of honouring promises, the value of women’s self-denial (sacrificing their desires for the interests of others), and uncritical devotion to one’s father. However, there is, of course, some ambiguity in the story, which is one of the reasons why Beauty and the Beast has remained fascinating to readers and audiences. Beaumont was a progressive thinker in the context of the period in which she lived. As a governess herself, she wanted women to have more access to education and more prominent social roles. At the same time, however, like many of the women attending the salons she was committed to the patriarchal social structure in which she lived. Similarly, Beauty can be understood as brave and determined (she is far more courageous than her father or the other men in the story) or she can be seen as submissive, while the beast, the symbolic epitome of masculinity, is both repulsive and fascinating, violently aggressive and loving, animalistic and civilised – as one of Beauty’s sisters observes in the film, for instance, in a sardonic comment on masculinity, ‘Lots of husbands are hairy and horned’. Jack Zipes suggests that what makes the story so powerful, and why it has been retold so regularly, and also adapted for film numerous times, is precisely that it lays bare and dramatises these contradictions. The story concerns characters wrestling with contradictory desires, instincts and obligations.
Production began on the film in August 1945 and it was apparently a difficult shoot. In the immediate aftermath of the war in which resources were limited, they were working with old, unreliable cameras that frequently jammed, damaged lenses, film stock of onconistsent quality, and even had trouble sourcing fabric for dressing sets and cutting costumes. It took them a lot of work, for example, to find unpatched sheets for a scene where they’re drying linen in the garden. The house where Beauty and her family live was also next to a military airfield and their sound-recordings were often ruined by training flights passing overhead. Cocteau himself suffered for much of the shoot with skin rashes and excruciatingly painful boils that led him to resume an opium addiction, and he claimed that his hair turned white over the months spent working on the film. In his production diary, he reconciles himself to these difficulties with the consolation that heroic suffering is essential for the production of poetry.
However, these difficulties aren’t evident in the film, which is visually sumptuous and has a lightness of touch and a clarity that belies the frustrations of the shoot, and it manages to capture the strangeness of the fairytale narrative very successfully.
Cocteau didn’t direct many films – although he enjoyed collaborating, he saw himself primarily as a poet, and preferred to work alone – but what drew him to cinema was the sense that it was the best medium in which to convey a sense of what he called the ‘Marvellous’ – inexplicable, irrational interruptions in the fabric of normality. As he explained it,
The Marvellous would be […] a simple human miracle, very commonplace, which consists of giving to persons and objects a certain “unusualness” which defies analysis. (43, 1977)
This is a concept that was central to surrealist art and literature (and André Breton’s writing in particular), and so it is unsurprising that Cocteau’s first film, Blood of a Poet (1930), is one of the avant-garde classics of surrealist cinema.
In terms of style and structure, Beauty and the Beast is a much more conventional film – Cocteau said that Blood of a Poet was a ‘film for fifty film connoisseurs’, whereas Beauty and the Beast was made for a wider audience. Nevertheless, it retains a number of elements – strange, unexplained details, photographic effects, abrupt edits, as well as theatrical tricks such as ‘Pepper’s ghost’ – that are familiar from surrealist cinema in order to render the ‘unusualness’ of the space inhabited by the beast. These include the uncanny living statues in the beast’s mansion, the candelabras supported by human arms, the use of slow-motion and reverse-motion cinematography, the rather disjointed narrative, the disconnected relationship between music and on-screen action and the use of silence, and the curiously theatrical style of some of the performances.
But, of course, the figure of the beast himself is the clearest embodiment of Cocteau’s concept of the marvellous – the inexplicable, irrational disruption of everyday reality. Perhaps the most fascinating and uncanny element of the film, he is played by Jean Marais, Cocteau’s lover, who had suggested the idea for the film in the first place. Like Cocteau, he too suffered during the film since Cocteau insisted that rather than wear a rubber mask, his make-up should be glued painstakingly to his skin so that his own face remained visible underneath the fur. As a result, he recalled:
It took me five hours to make up – that meant thirteen hours a day in the studio. Because of the fangs attached to my teeth, all I could eat was mush, and that by the spoonful. Between takes I scarcely opened my mouth lest the makeup become unglued: no one understood what I said, and that exasperated me.
But the consequence of this physical discomfort is a very memorable cinematic figure. Indeed, for Cocteau, Marais’ commitment to art was an inspiration and he wrote that, as a consequence of this passion, when Marais played the beast he went through a transformation, ‘deserting the human race for the animal race.’ This vivid phrase describes both the transformation undergone by the actor, and also the decision made by Beauty within the narrative to offer herself to the beast. More broadly still, it is suggestive of the potential of cinematic fantasy to transport the viewer to an imaginary and impossible space.
The beast’s spectacular costume is the central attraction of a visually rich film – the production designer used paintings by Johannes Vermeer and prints by the French illustrator Gustave Doré as reference points for designing the interiors. This is a film that is all about light in one respect – it is central to the film’s aesthetic and the precise lighting scheme establishes a distinction between the glowing sunshine of Beauty’s world, and the shadowy world of the Beast, which is characterised by low-key chiaroscuro lighting, silhouettes and back-lighting, luminous smoke and fog, and dark rooms and corridors punctuated by sparkling highlights. Cocteau chose Agfa film stock over Kodak because, he said, he wanted the film to have the ‘soft gleam of hand-polished old silver’. It is a very accurate description of the film’s distinctive antiqued metallic lustre
Cocteau was in an unhappy situation more generally when they were making the film. He had lived in Paris during the occupation and was accused by the BBC in 1944 of being a collaborator having published an article in 1942 praising the Nazi sculptor Arno Breker (one of Hitler’s favourite artists). He wasn’t a fascist, and he was investigated and acquitted after the war by two tribunals, but would no doubt have been especially keen to put the war behind him.
Jack Zipes has suggested one of the remarkable features of Cocteau’s version of Beauty and the Beast is that it emphasises more strongly than any other film adaptation, the oedipal dimensions of the story: the daughter’s self-sacrificing devotion to her father. This is undoubtedly a plausible interpretation of the film, and the simple story invites a number of others; the American composer, Philip Glass, who has written operas based on three of Cocteau’s films including this one (wherein Glass’s opera was performed in exact synchronisation with the film), suggests it is a film about ‘the nature of the creative process’, as well as a love story. However, it seems quite likely that a powerful attraction of the film both for Cocteau, and for audiences watching it in the ruined and impoverished environment of post-war Europe, is also that it invites us to step into a fantasy world, a simpler, apparently innocent space (like the characters within the film who pass back and forth between normality and the magical space occupied by the Beast). The film opens with a written message from Cocteau, himself, inviting viewers to suspend their cynicism and watch the film with a childlike simplicity.
The film’s initial success – and the fact that it has been revived repeatedly culminating with this pristine new restoration – suggests that cinema audiences have always been very willing to take up the invitation.
Jonathan Cott, ‘A Conversation with Philip Glass on La Belle et La Bete’ from the booklet accompanying the 1995 CD release of Glass’s opera.
Arthur B. Evans (1977) Jean Cocteau and his Films of Orphic Identity. London: Associated University Presses
Elizabeth Sprigge, Jean-Jacques Kim (1968) Jean Cocteau: The Man and the Mirror. London: Victor Gollancz
Francis Steegmuller (1970) Cocteau: A Biography. London: Macmillan.
Jack Zipes (1994) Fairytale as Myth/Myth as Fairytale. Lexington: University of Kentucky
Tags Dukes cinema, film introduction, Jean Cocteau, Jean Marais, La Belle et La Bete, Surrealism
Out of the extravagant variety of Jean Cocteau’s work—the paintings and drawings, the poems, the plays and novels and memoirs, the opera librettos and ballet scenarios—it is likely his films that will have the most enduring influence, and among those, Beauty and the Beast (1946) will have the most pervasive effect. When it comes to “fairy-tale movies”—if such a genre exists as something other than a profit center for the Disney corporation—there is Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and then there is everything else. It is a safe bet that no one who surrenders to it at an impressionable age ever quite escapes the distinct and disturbing enchantments it sets in motion.
It is also perhaps the most self-effacing of Cocteau’s works. His flamboyance and wit are placed at the service of the old folkloric tale by Mme Leprince de Beaumont; even as he adds his characteristic complications to the tale—giving the Beast a thoroughly earthly and unenchanted doppelgänger, Avenant, and adding a mythic dimension by means of a secret temple to Diana—he allows the pure force of the narrative to assert itself, as if he were content for once to figure as a kind of medieval artisan. An artisan among artisans: the film is virtually a showcase for the best in French production design (Christian Bérard), music (Georges Auric), cinematography (Henri Alekan), and costuming (Marcel Escoffier). Yet the net effect is, if anything, austere rather than lush, a tribute to Cocteau’s unerring sense that here the tale, with its mysterious imperatives, is everything.
The film is inescapably tied up with the war during which it was planned. Shooting began four months after the German surrender. The deprivations of the period account for the fact that it was not filmed in color, as Cocteau had wished—hard as it is to imagine the movie apart from Alekan’s black-and-white palette, with its careful distinction between a deceptively sunny ordinary reality and the Beast’s domain of night. This harshness in the background is perceptible in other ways as well. The storybook setting of a seventeenth-century farmhouse, into which we are ushered with the phrase “once upon a time,” is revealed within a few moments as a place of vanity and venality, cowardice and petty-minded squabbling, slaps and insults. It is a fallen world, in which Belle (Josette Day) seems to withdraw into a hermetic suffering amid the meanness of her elder sisters, the feckless opportunism of her brother, the moral weakness of her father, and the overtures of Jean Marais’ handsome and empty Avenant. The hellishness of this pictorially elegant but resolutely unmagical reality, further amplified by the implied rapacity of encircling creditors and moneylenders, makes it an unlikely setting for any conceivable “happy ever after.”
By establishing how truly oppressive is the world that Belle and her father inhabit, Cocteau makes all the more uncanny the discovery, by the harried merchant, of a passageway out of it, into the Beast’s realm. It is like the breaching of a seam, and we are carried through every part of the process: through the misty forest and up a deserted staircase, through the great door and, in the most otherworldly of camera movements, down the hall of human arms extending candelabra whose flames spontaneously flare up—a rite of initiation that loses none of its power from learning that it was achieved by filming the action backward, and that it was shot not by Cocteau but by his assistant, René Clément. You can play it back time and again without exhausting the sense of shock at having passed through some ordinary, invisible portal.
If this is magic, it is a shaggy, palpable sort of magic. As a true poet—whether writing verse or otherwise—Cocteau had a poet’s hard-earned mistrust of the merely atmospheric, decorative vagueness misnamed “poetic”: “My method,” he wrote at the outset of his journal of the shooting of Beauty and the Beast, “is simple: not to aim at poetry. That must come of its own accord. The mere whispered mention of its name frightens it away.” The result, of course, was a film that, as much as any other, has been praised as lyrical, almost unbearable in its ethereal gorgeousness, a triumph of the imagination—even when it may just as accurately be described as tough-minded, down-to-earth, ferociously unsentimental. If Cocteau’s film continues to breathe, as few have done, the air of the fantastic, it is because we sense at each moment that we are caught up in a process governed by laws, laws that may be difficult to explain or even articulate but that express themselves by the most concrete means: “Fantasy has its own laws, which are like those of perspective. You may not bring what is distant into the foreground nor render fuzzily what is near.” Like a ritual performed in order to produce results, not just to make the participants feel good, Beauty and the Beast moves through its phases undistracted by anything, focused only on the business at hand.
Any prettiness is incidental, mere drapery over darker and more archaic imperatives. The underlying structure is nearly pitiless, an intricately intermeshing machinery loaded with hidden traps. Cocteau has a logician’s respect for the orders of ritual and the cruel demands of ritual sacrifice. His “magic” has, from certain angles, the paranoid efficiency of a cosmic prison house in which miracles exist but only at a rigorously exacted price. The weightless happiness that is the perennial promise of both fairy tales and movies is to be attained at a cost measured out frame by frame, in a story more full of suffering than of wish fulfillment—and in which, indeed, the promise of ecstasy embraced in the moment of final metamorphosis quickly threatens to become a more banal contentment. Even as Belle and her prince (the Beast transformed into the double of the unreliable Avenant) soar into the sky, she seems already to realize that this is not exactly what she wanted. The instant reaction attributed to Greta Garbo captures perfectly the strange disappointment of the “happy” ending: “Give me back my Beast!”
In Beauty and the Beast, as previously in The Blood of a Poet (1930) and later in Orpheus (1950), Cocteau was able to realize the fantastic not as an escape from the real but as an extension of it, as its reverse side. He has no interest in Neverlands or Wonderlands. He approaches the paraphernalia of the fairy tale—those enchanted mirrors, keys, gloves—with a technician’s dispassion, no more taken aback by their existence than by the existence of trees or streams or horses or rose gardens, but endlessly curious about how they function. For Cocteau, “movie magic” is not a glib catchphrase. As a science of transformation, cinema becomes true alchemy. The mirror in The Blood of a Poet that becomes a splashing pool as one passes through it is not an illusion but an achieved reality; in Orpheus, the comings and goings between the realms of the living and the dead are rendered in a deadpan spirit of documentary observation. If magic requires the use of specialized equipment, for Cocteau that equipment includes the whole somnambulistic repertoire of the movies’ night side, from Meliès on out. When in watching Beauty and the Beast we think at one moment or another of Nosferatu or Metropolis or Dracula or King Kong, it is not with the sense that they have been imitated or self-consciously alluded to but as if their effective elements have been incorporated wholesale, as needed, by the resident shaman.
The magic is sexual throughout—a fantastic, but not in the least morbid or phantasmal, sex magic. What could be more direct and free of coyness than the image of the Beast drinking water from Belle’s hands, although it is so chaste that no censor could have ever assailed it? It is matched by the tactile immediacy of the moment when the grieving Beast presses his furry face against the fur coverlet of Belle’s empty bed. The irresistible effect of everything that happens after Belle enters the castle is tied to the pair’s aura of forbidden intimacy: her slow-motion advance into the Beast’s great hall, as she moves past the billowing white curtains and Auric’s music bursts out in choral ululations; her passage through the talking door, into the privacies of mirror and bed; the night wanderings in which she spies on the Beast in the aftermath of his nocturnal slaughters, while he stares in horror at his smoking hands.
The extraordinarily beautiful shot in which we see the Beast from behind, his head haloed in light, as he ascends the stairs with Belle in his arms, while on the other side of the screen, light streams through dungeonlike grillwork, conjures with gothic intensity the imminence of a sexual fantasy fulfilled, in a setting made for such fulfillment—a bedroom hidden within a castle hidden within a forest—and with Beauty delivered defenseless into the embrace of a Beast manifestly able to sweep away all resistance. The erotic force of the episode that follows is outdone only by the even greater emotional force of the restraint that stops him in his tracks and sends him rushing out of the room, saying, “You mustn’t look into my eyes.”
It is, of course, his eyes that we look at, glistening from within the multilayered makeup that cost Marais five hours of application each day, makeup so expressive that Marais’ real face seems a blank by comparison. We cannot shake the certainty that an actual creature has been introduced into the world, and the sorrow provoked by his disappearance recurs anew on each viewing. I doubt whether so solitary and tragic a figure has ever been so fully realized in movies before or since, and realized here not only through Hagop Arakelian’s makeup skills and Marais’ performance but through the universe created to form a context around him, made out of Cocteau’s words, Auric’s music, Alekan’s images.
As for Belle, she is, finally, almost as much of a cipher as the statue of Diana that breaks the spell by shooting an arrow into the rascally Avenant. When the Beast tells her, “You are the only master here,” he underscores the cruelty at the heart of Cocteau’s fable. Beauty is indeed the master of all the craftsmanlike skills brought to their highest pitch to realize this singular vision: a Beauty who may offer love or capriciously withhold it, a Beauty who wants only a rose—even if that rose may threaten death to anyone who gives it to her—a Beauty who may, after all, know herself least well and therefore never fully grasp her own all-determining power. Only in the mirror world of art can Beauty and Beast truly cohabit. And even for Cocteau, master of such a range of arts, what art but cinema—the magic mirror itself—could ever realize that cohabitation so persuasively?
Geoffrey O’Brien’s books include Sonata for Jukebox, Castaways of the Image Planet, The Browser’s Ecstasy, The Phantom Empire, and The Fall of the House of Walworth. He is editor in chief of the Library of America.