La Belle et la Bête (1946)

This is my last film of 2011, and this review is also my last regular post for a while. Luckily, I picked a good movie to go out on. (Note: I marked this as a spoiler-free review, because, c’mon, it’s a well-known fairy tale; its plot is unspoilable and the execution has to be seen to be appreciated. There are similar “spoilers” for the Disney film in the review.)

The film opens with a credit sequence centred on a half-dirty blackboard: writer/director Jean Cocteau writes the lead actor’s name on the board; the actor, Jean Marais, walks into the frame and wipes his name away. Ditto for Josette Day, the lead actress. It’s a cute idea, representing the actors wiping away their identities for the duration of the movie, to better inhabit their characters. In hindsight it’s even funnier, because this film is what both actors (and the director) are probably most known for.
The rest of the credits is then superimposed over a variety of crude drawings on the board, which I would again ascribe meaning to: the story is an old one, retold again and again, always with little changes, but every retelling leaves a mark and bleeds through to any new adaptation. Cocteau uses Jeanne Marie Leprince de Beaumont as a source, but adds elements all his own and removes others. Almost 50 years later, Walt Disney Feature Animation draws inspiration from both the prose story as well as the previous film, but they, too, do their own thing.

The story that follows the credits will be familiar to anyone who has seen the 1991 Disney version (and who hasn’t?), though there are a few differences. A merchant gets lost in the woods and stumbles upon an old castle, seemingly abandoned but actually inhabited by a cat-like man-beast (with a scratchier and more primal voice than Robby Benson’s in 1991). The Beast catches the merchant picking a rose in his garden and sentences him to death. The merchant is allowed a “merciful” stay of execution if he asks his daughters whether one of them wants to take his place. One of them, Beauty (“Belle” in the original French), agrees. Once she arrives at the castle, the Beast is courteous and almost subservient to her, and the two eventually fall in love. Complications arise, including a previous, human suitor named Charming (“Avenant”), but in the end, the two live happily ever after.

Being familiar with the story primarily via the Disney film, I initially thought Cocteau had mixed together several different fairy tales for his version. Beauty being put upon by two spoiled and heartless sisters, for instance, seemed right out of “Cinderella”, and the motif of a father doomed by an unassuming-seeming wish a daughter makes (he picks the rose for Beauty, who requested that he bring home such a gift from his travels) is present in several stories (eg. “The Singing, Springing Lark”). Having now read the original story, or at least the version by de Beaumont, I can report that these parts of the film stay faithful to the source.

It’s no surprise, in retrospect, that the Disney version excises these plot elements, for while they are typical fairy tale concepts, they seem like impurities and obsolete carryovers for this particular story. Belle/Beauty’s father’s change of profession from the mundane merchant to the more exciting inventor must also be mentioned, and while the town the father travels to in the beginning is mentioned in the story and shown in the 1946 film, the animated picture leaves it out, letting Maurice the inventor become lost before he ever reaches it. Gaston/Charming is fashioned into a clearer antagonist and pitted against the Beast both metaphorically and physically; in the end, the villains get their comeuppance in a satisfying way, as do the protagonists and supporting characters. All these changes result in a cleaner, more streamlined, modern narrative with a solid structure: three acts, with everything important introduced in the first one and all the plot threads wrapped up neatly by the third.
Of course the Disney film contains some plotholes and implausibilities, but most of the magic in the film is explained: there is a reason for the prince’s enchantment, a mechanism for the spell to be broken, and a method to the madness of talking furniture. The 1991 flick is coherent – and conventional – in a way that Cocteau’s film is not and does not try to be.

The supporting characters in both films have real names, but Cocteau gives descriptive – mythical – names to the three principals: Avenant (roughly, Charming), Belle (Beauty; quite often even “la belle”, the beautiful woman), la Bête (Beast). There are some rules to the magic in the French film, too, but they are rare and, when uttered, weirdly random and specific (such as the magic words used to compel a white horse to carry a rider to and from the castle). But more often, the film conveniently forgets things like the fact that the Beast originally wants to kill his young prisoner for the sins of her father. The rose garden that supposedly causes the whole mess is never mentioned again; a glorified shed takes its place as that which the Beast holds most dear (though the audience is never quite told why). The castle’s invisible (and mostly mute) servants, realised by Cocteau as torsoless arms growing out of tables and walls and stone busts with moving eyes, are never explained. A plot thread involving Beauty’s no-good brother is (literally) left dangling without resolution.

In this very openness, however, lies the film’s appeal. It’s possible the lack of cohesiveness, the jumbly feeling of the thing, is merely a nod to the fairy tales of old, which were after all transmitted orally, with embellishments as the narrator saw fit. But consider this idea: it is not possible to interpret the 1991 version, or at least that film does not lend itself to anything but a basic character and presentational analysis. If you want to dig deeper, you have to go back to the roots of the story, the fairy tale of the maiden who marries a beast, and strip away all the specifics added by Disney. When a story fills too many gaps between its lines, it becomes all surface. Cocteau’s film doesn’t do that; it invites the audience to participate, to use their imagination and interpret what it all means.

Beauty moves awfully quick from being repulsed by the Beast to wanting to be “only friends” to loving him. Is that because she genuinely falls in love with his inner qualities, as the fairy tale was surely meant to suggest, and which is shown quite clearly in the Disney version? Maybe. Or maybe her sisters’ criticism is partially justified and she really is no better than them, warming to the Beast as soon as he gives her jewelry. Or maybe, and I’m partial to this reading, his animal attraction is getting to her. Whenever the two are together, the screen oozes sexual tension, from the very beginning. The smoke that rises from the Beast and which is usually interpreted as a sign of his animalistic side (Cocteau explicitly mentions it’s a sign the Beast has killed in a post-credits pre-narrative insertion) actually makes much more sense as overflowing sexual desire. It’s not just the Beast; the castle is full of smoke, especially Beauty’s chambers. The Beast’s glove also exudes the stuff, even when Beauty is back in her village. There are several Peeping Tom scenes in the film, and both Marais and Day occasionally seem to pose for the camera as if we, the viewers, were the voyeurs.
Similarly, maybe the Beast keeps off killing Beauty because he is attracted to her (sexually or not); she then proceeds to “tame” him and teach him how to be a civilised (gentle)man. Again, much like the Disney film. Or the whole thing about sentencing Beauty’s father to death is an elaborate scheme designed to getting the Beast a woman so he can finally get laid.

Charming, the Beast, and the human form of the Beast are all played by Neil Patrick HarrisJean Marais. Beauty at one point or another confesses her love to all three, arguably facets of the same person. The handsome but somewhat rascally Charming (who has a habit of assaulting people who annoy him) is not the right fit for her, nor is the noble but tortured and hideous beast (who also has impulse control problems); it is only the combination of the two, nice soul and nice body, that lifts her heart (literally) to the sky. The imperfect attempts to woo her must die to make room for the man who is just right for her.
There is an interesting moment in the film when the Beast asks Beauty the name of her previous suitor. She tells him: “Avenant”, upon which the Beast grimaces as if in pain and runs into the woods. Now, I’ve translated the name as “Charming”, but it can also mean “Handsome”. The Beast’s reaction works on multiple levels: he is reminded of his less-than-agreeable features and that they are the main impediment to Beauty loving him; metaphorically, Charming is another side of him and Beauty being so close to that side, but unable to love the other, hurts him; literally, it’s a fantasy plot, so there might be an additional connection between the two rivals that isn’t elaborated upon. As the finale shows, the two definitely are magically linked.

The more I write about the film, the more I like it. Probably because I do appreciate it when authors leave gaps in their work that the reader, or viewer in this case, can then attempt to make sense of however he or she pleases. It’s not a perfect film; some of the sequences involving the village, particularly Beauty’s family, seem a bit superfluous. There is also some weird editing in the movie. Sometimes the camera lingers long after the music cue has faded, but more often there are abrupt cuts that affect either just the soundtrack or both music and image. I don’t know if this is intentional or a result of irreparable damage to the source. If so, no specific mention is made of this in the restoration documentary on the DVD.

Finally, a few words about the Philip Glass opera version. I only managed to watch parts of it, because frankly, it doesn’t work. It’s an interesting experiment, and it might well have been an intriguing experience when the opera was originally performed: with the singers live on stage and the film merely in the background. In that kind of setting, the audience can focus on the singers. But because the presentation on the DVD necessarily removes them, the effect of “seeing” the 1946 actors belt out the exact same lines, but a tad out of synch (because of course the audio doesn’t match up exactly) and without any sound effects is decidedly odd, and not in a good way.
I’ll freely admit I don’t generally like opera to begin with, even if that makes me a philistine; I can respect how difficult it is to sing in that style, but I don’t like how the vowel sounds tend to blend together and, in effect, obscure what is being said. But I don’t think that’s my problem in this case. I did listen to the entire thing (ignoring the screen) and liked it well enough, the instrumental parts more so than the vocal ones. It’s the conjunction of this specific unaltered piece of music with these specific unaltered visuals that doesn’t quite gel. I’m curious whether the DVD presentation might have benefited from a more radical approach, like slightly recutting the film to make it fit the music, or using Glass’ melodies as the only audio source to create a sort of makeshift silent movie. There’s nothing wrong with Georges Auric’s original score, of course; it’s quite beautiful, if a bit bombastic and over-the-top at times in that 1940s Hollywood style (despite, obviously, not created by a Hollywood musician). But the weird editing glitches I mentioned above also affect the music, and a different interpretation by a modern composer might have made for an interesting bonus, if the complete original version is lost forever anyway. Cocteau might have approved, judging from the blackboard intro.


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