Well, it's that time of the month again...time for the next entry in my personal Blind Spot series, and I have to say that this is, by leaps and bounds, my favorite film to be seen so far. I was super excited to finally get my hands on this beloved classic, and I must say that when I actually compiled my list all those months ago, this was by far the one I was most excited to see.
Please feel free to look up my previous posts on The Shop Around the Corner, Penny Serenade, Sergeant York and Shadow of a Doubt. Exploring the 40's this year has truly been a real cinematic blessing.
But for now, let's talk about a fairytale!
Watching ‘La belle et la bete’ the other day was a profoundly moving experience for me. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ has always been one of my favorite fairytales, and in many respects it has been my favorite. I still remember the day that I saw the Disney film for the first time. I was six years old and my whole family went to the theater together. I was obsessed at a very young age with this timeless classic, and while my early years were consumed with Disney’s presentation, I soon grew into exploring other facets of this tale. From the stage play to the television series to variations of the book, I have loved everything I have been able to get my hands on.
But for some strange reason, I had not ever seen this critically acclaimed and beloved French adaptation, until now.
More so than just for myself, the magical moments contained in Jean Cocteau’s magnificent film were shared with my daughters, and that made the experience all the more special. The rich black and white, the inspired art direction and special effects and the beautiful chemistry between the actors all made for such a delightful movie watching experience, but as I read each word of dialog to my children (yes, I read every word) I could sense a swell of excitement come over the whole room, and when the Prince and Belle leap into the air in the rousing finale to fly off to their kingdom my eldest daughter stood up on the bed and yelled “this is beautiful” I knew that this would be one of my proudest cinematic moments as a father.
For those only familiar with Disney’s version of the tale, many aspects of Cocteau’s beautiful film will be brand new to the viewer. This tale plays out vastly different, with Belle’s actual life feeling like a solid mixture of Disney’s Belle and Cinderella. Belle is made house servant by her spoiled sisters who treat her, and those around them, like dirt. Belle has caught the eye of Avenant, a family friend and fellow scoundrel with her brother, Ludovic. Their father is a man with financial woes, and her brother is a man with even more of them. On a nightly trip home, Belle’s father stumbles upon the Beast’s haunted lair and is condemned to death when he picks one of the Beast’s beloved roses. The Beast gives him an ultimatum. If one of the man’s children wants to come and die in his place, his life with be spared. He is to return (or send one of his children) back in three days’ time.
Upon hearing her father’s heartbreaking tale, and taking responsibility, since it was for her that he picked the rose, Belle decides to venture off to the Beast’s lair in her father’s place.
Here is where the film truly transforms into a visual and emotional spectacle.
The tale of the love that forms between the Beast and Belle is done in a much more reserved and innovative way in Cocteau’s tale. Instead of the lavish romanticism that we saw with Disney, Cocteau takes his time to develop something darker, earthier in tone. That isn’t to downgrade what Disney did with this story at all, for their adaptation is still one of my favorite animated films of all time and is a truly splendid counterpoint to this film, but the differences are obvious. The approach made to the relationship that forms between the two is one more naturally and believably developed. The Beast’s yearning, his inner desperation and his ashamed demeanor are all brought magically to life through Jean Marais’s stunning performance; and considering that he really only had his eyes to work with is an astonishing feat. Contrast that with the coolness that pervades Belle’s subtle acceptance of the Beast and the way that she always portrays the inner beauty of Belle without betraying her obvious fear and feeling of betrayal concerning her situation and you have a shockingly poignant character study that develops real themes of love and understanding, trapped within the beautiful surroundings of a fairytale.
This story is so universally loved because it is so universally profound.
From a visual standpoint, ‘La belle et la bete’ is a stunning piece of cinema. The rich black and white cinematography engulf every frame, creating a beautiful template for Cocteau to paint his picture. The costumes and sets are all astonishing to see. The way that Cocteau took his disadvantages (financially and technologically) and turned them into advantages is just brilliant. The sets, those living breathing sets, are just breathtaking.
And the Beast’s makeup is so real, so believable, that he’ll give you chills.
With a beautiful score by Georges Auric, who illuminates every scene with the musical progression, ‘La belle et la bete’ stands tall as one of the greatest cinematic accomplishments of all time.