Cine-East Film Club Presents #62 (Christmas Special): 1946, La Belle Et La Bête (Jean Cocteau)

by George_East on December 25, 2014

Opening Titles: “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…”

Unlike our two previous Cine-East Film Club Christmas Special presentations (It’s A Wonderful Life and Meet Me In St Louis) Christmas itself plays no part in La Belle Et La Bête. Yet this romantic adaptation of a classic French fairy tale directed by French poet and playwright Jean Cocteau is the perfect post-Turkey Christmas night film.

In his telling of the story of the merchant’s daughter and the prince turned beast Jean Cocteau creates a highly stylised world of kinetic human statutory and tears that turn to diamonds.

The story has all of the classic fairy tale elements. Magic, a doting father, an innocent beautiful and dutiful daughter, her two older ugly (in attitude at least) sisters, a dissolute suitor, a prince in the form of a monster and magic. It is both a cautionary tale about greed and as with many fairy tales (at least since the Freudians got them on the couch) a subtext of the dangers of repressed sexuality.

It is, as the opening titles set out at the head of this post, a film that Cocteau aimed at adults pleading with them to approach it with the wide eyed wonder of their children, yet the very childlike simplicity that Cocteau invokes means that the film works equally well as a children’s film. It is not the defiantly adult reimagining of a fairy tale of a film like Neil Jordan’s The Company Of Wolves (though that film is heavily influenced by La Belle Et La Bête.

The plot is, as fairy tales should be, simplicity itself. It goes something like this.

Once upon a time…..

An elderly and widowed merchant with three daughters is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy as a result of his trading ships being lost at sea. Two of his daughters, Felice and Adelaide are grasping, greedy women interesting in riches and society and nothing else (a scene at the beginning of the film demonstrates how they perceive themselves as they both take sedan chairs into town in full finery even as their father’s economic woes have brought him to the brink of ruin).   The youngest daughter, Belle (Josette Day), appears initially to be more like a servant than the progeny of a respectable merchant, as she waits table for the rest of the family in her head scarf.   Her modesty and sense of duty belies the fact that she is the fairest of them all. There is also a brother who is a reckless gambler without work, making the family’s financial position worse and his equally dissolute friend, Avenant, who is engaged to Belle.

One of the father’s ships is reported as having returned to port and the family think their fortune has been restored. He asks his daughters what they would like as a preset from town – the two older daughters ask for the expensive and the exotic, Belle merely wants a rose. The father goes into town to claim his cargo from the ship only to find that his creditors have impounded it. On his journey back he gets lost and stumbles upon an apparently abandoned castle.   Inside he finds a lavish meal with wine laid out for him. Afterwards in the grounds of the castle he plucks a rose and is almost immediately confronted by the monstrous owner of the castle who tells him that the punishment for plucking the rose is death. He is told that he must return to the castle in exactly a week for the punishment to be carried out unless one of his daughters is prepared to take his place.

Belle volunteers to take her father’s place and then sneaks away from the merchant’s house on the beast’s horse, Magnificent, and heads for the castle. Instead of being killed the beast immediately falls in love with her and every day proposes to her. She is repelled by him and turns him down, but discovers through a magic mirror that her father is ill. She pleads with the beast to let her go back to her family. The beast lets her go on condition that she returns to him. But instead of threatening her with the consequences of not returning, entrusts her with the key to the outbuilding that stores his riches. He tells her that if she doesn’t return in a week he will die of grief.

The greedy older sisters, dissolute brother and Avenant persuade Belle to stay and steal the key to the beast’s treasure. The brother and Avenant go to the Beast’s castle to steal the treasure.   Belle discovers that this has happened and uses the magic glove the beast has given her to return to him, finding him dying as he said he would. As Avenant enters the store of glittering golden treasure a statute of Diana comes alive and shoots an arrow into him turning him into a beast. At the same moment Belle declares her love for the dying beast, which lifts the curse on him and he turns (back) into a prince.

And this is a fairy tale – so the Prince and Belle fly off (literally) and, no doubt, live happily ever after.

The story is, of course, important to the film and gives it on one level a reassuring familiarity. The beast who is tamed by the love of a pure woman or the beast as the untamed sexual desire in every man – a reading which is supported by the fact that Jean Marais plays both the beast and Avenant and the prince who the beast turns into) suggesting that they are all one and the same. Freud was, of course, all the rage amongst mid-century intellectuals, something which is found in many films of the period too (see Hitchcock’s Spellbound for a Hollywood example released the previous year). These readings have all the more of an intriguing resonance when one takes into account the fact that Marais was Cocteau’s lover for more than three decades. The beast inside indeed.

The film also contains a simple moral about the consequences of greed (though the Jewish caricatured money lender/bailiff, like Alec Guinness’ Fagin in David Lean’s Oliver Twist, is at its kindest deeply unfortunate) and a celebration of the transcendent power of love.

This is all well and good though, but what makes La Belle Et La Bête stand out and fix itself in the memory most I think is the art design and the fantastical atmosphere that Cocteau creates.

The art design is as far from familiar as can be imagined (or even not imagined).   One of the most baroque, intricate and beautifully realised in all of cinema. A clear distinction is made between the scenes in the beast’s castle and the scenes elsewhere. The look of the merchant’s house draws heavily on the paintings of Vermeer; whereas the engravings of Gustave Doré provide the inspiration for the beast’s castle.

Cocteau films the scenes in the castle in a way, which invokes a dream. The dialogue is slower and more poetic. The film looks like it is shot through some kind of gauze. The castle itself is full of animate objects – torches lighting corridors held by real human arms which turn in the direction of the walker, a hand emerges from beneath the dining table to serve the merchant wine. The beast who literally burns when Belle looks at him with anything other than love.

All of this works because magic is simply part of the world in which the castle exists. And it is Cocteaus’s realisation of this world that makes it one of the most magical films ever made.

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