Once upon a time, in the austere land of post-World War II France, a poet decided it was time to “grapple with a dream” and breathe a beloved fairy tale onto the silver screen.
In 1946, Jean Cocteau — poet, playwright, novelist, painter and creative force — turned the unnatural into the convincing with his cinematic illustration of Madame Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s “Beauty and the Beast” (“La Belle et la Bête”). It’s a tale in which the theft of a rose throws a poor merchant’s family into a timeless horror that somehow touches an innate truth, and a strange girl who doesn’t mind being frightened. Written and directed by Cocteau, the film is known and treasured for its surreal mise-en-scène: Human arms and hands holding candelabras reach out of the walls; statues breathe smoke and follow action with their eyes; doors and mirrors speak; beasts turn out to be more humane than most of the humans.
Cocteau’s poetic aesthetic, combined with the expertise of cinematographer Henri Alekan (Wings of Desire), permeates all aspects of each scene’s visual compositions in a polished silver ballet of light, shadow and silhouette. The costumes cross between Vermeer and Mother Goose, with outrageous collars and wide white cuffs, hats reaching for the sky and lush-to-crisp textures folding into each other. From the lavish satin gowns of Belle to the Beast’s jewel-encrusted, raised velvet cape (like dark, sparkling wings of starry constellations), the matter-of-fact extravagance is intoxicating. Both Josette Day (Beauty) and Jean Marais (the Beast) move and speak in an otherworldly ambience that sweeps across the screen as naturally as a light breeze on a draped white sheet. These combine with Georges Auric’s original musical score — sirenic, haunting, instrumental and vocal waterfalls that evoke Debussy’s impressionistic orchestrations — to strike an uncomplicated chord within us, directly connected to the wondrous nightmares of childhood.
Perhaps the tale is a fanciful extension of Cocteau’s perception of France, which, like the story’s merchant, struggled in a state of desperate economy. Cocteau admired France’s tradition of anarchy and inherent spirit of contradiction, “which is at the bottom of the spirit of creativity,” eluding explanation and organized systems like a free-form poem. “But perhaps,” wrote the director, “these limitations may stimulate imagination, which is often lethargic when all means are placed at its disposal.”
Contemporary film magicians should closely contemplate Cocteau’s thought when they watch how he manifested a celluloid fairy tale with straightforward, eloquent and effective “tricks” on a shoestring budget. He reverses the film and candelabras seem to light on their own, and Beauty (with the help of a trap door) emerges in folds of satin from a wall. He simply places a clear sheet of glass in a mirror frame and Beauty’s wicked sister sees herself as the monkey sitting behind the pane.
La Belle et la Bête and Orphée are considered to be Cocteau’s greatest cinematic achievements. They inspired the film critics-turned-filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague (the French New Wave), especially Truffaut, enough to make them recognize him as one of their predecessors. And the film is so flawless that you’d never know its director and cast were plagued with illnesses and technical difficulties. In addition to troubles with old equipment and unfortunate weather, Cocteau suffered from severe dermatitis and tracheitis, among other physical infirmities, while Marais struggled with painful boils and adverse reactions to the Beast’s makeup.
In his book Beauty and the Beast: Diary of a Film, Cocteau describes his thoughts at the first screening of the film for the technicians: “The film unwound, revolved, sparkled, outside of me, solitary, unfeeling, far-off as a heavenly body. It had killed me. It now rejected me and lived its own life. The only thing I could see in it were the memories attached to every foot of it and the suffering it had caused me. I couldn’t believe that others would be able to find a story line in it. I thought they were all immersed in my imaginings.”
We are immersed in Cocteau’s imaginings, but we see only the enduring and enchanting virtues of a masterpiece, not the beastly conditions of suffering attached to the making of the film. In the words of the monster, “Love can turn a man into a beast, but love can also make an ugly man handsome.” Beauty and the Beast has transmuted the monstrous memories of Cocteau’s nightmare into a living, breathing fairy tale, thanks to a French poet’s inherent and relentless love of creation.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.