My interest yesterday in Jean Cocteau lingered on today, so I decided to watch another of his more famous works. The film begins as you’d expect – an immediate fourth wall break as a production assistant uses a clapperboard to commence filming, much like a starter pistol going off at a race. A plea from Cocteau follows, asking the audience to employ a little childlike belief, before the first scene begins. Cocteau loves addressing his audience at the first; he wants no misunderstanding.
The tale is classic, and well-known. It’s been done and done again, in print and in film, from Disney to CBS…to Disney again. It should be played out and overused, yet “Beauty and the Beast” is a story that withstands time, with themes that auteurs and storytellers come back to reinterpret over and over.
Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête (1946) begins with overtures of Cinderella, surrounding Belle (Josette Day) with demanding sisters and endless chores, while they try to live beyond their means, dressing lavishly and garnering footmen while stumbling around farm animals. Fallen on hard times after losing ships to the sea, Belle’s father arrives and announces that he has solved their financial woes, but her brother, Ludovic, withdraws a large loan anyways, intent on erasing his debts and maintaining his lifestyle, along with his friend Avenant (Jean Marais), the “Gaston” of the film. As he signs the paperwork, a black cat can be seen leaping off the table; earlier, a footman walked under a ladder; ill omens, all.
Her father, upon going into town to receive his one remaining ship, discovers that there is nothing valuable left, and journeys home, dejected. He soon becomes lost in the forest, and arrives at an imposing castle, where he makes the mistake of picking a single rose – as Belle had simply requested – and earning the ire of the Beast (Jean Marais again, playing two characters).
The rest is, as they say, history. The Beast demands recompense, and Belle goes in her father’s place. Although the Beast assures her that she is in equal command of the house, he also assures her that every night he will ask for her hand in marriage until she does not refuse.
The house itself is saturated in Cocteauian surrealism, fantastic and ethereal. When Belle’s father arrives, his shadow moves ahead of him, and he is guided through the foyer by a series of self-lighting candelabras that move on their own, unfolding from the wall in sconces in the shape of human arms, who then point him to the waiting dinner table. An angelic song is heard, and the mantle carvings come to life, as does the table, who pours him his drink.
As Belle discovers more of the chateau, we too delve deeper into the fantasy. Cocteau loves to employ A Classical Roman symmetry, something evident especially in architecture and the design of his sets. Each window has a doorway opposite, every wall fixture has a pair, matching items – statues, plinths, pediments – frame or appear in each scene of the house. It is aesthetically pleasing to see, but also psychologically pleasing; it helps us make sense of everything, turning a confusing or contradictory experience into a processed form of stability (read more here).
Belle’s door announces to her that it guards her room, a chamber filled with overgrown plants, moving statues, and a magic mirror. Her bed makes itself. Make no mistake, however, this is no Disney story; Lumiere does not sing a delightful song at dinner, and there are no matronly teapots wandering around. The animate household fixtures are mostly silent and smiling, or if they do speak, are not shown doing so, and present themselves in a quiet, subdued whisper. After fainting at the sight of him, the Beast carries Belle over the threshold of her room, and her clothes change instantly to a beautiful and ornate dress; whenever Belle uses a magical object, or magic is present in the film, the user begins to give off a thick smoke. The magic of the house is subtle, intricate in its understatement, and while the house does not contain a cast of characters, it is a character in itself, moving as a cohesive unit.
The Beast also differs from contemporary interpretation; in Disney’s animated feature, he is more Byronic, moody, brooding, menacing. With Cocteau, he is more regal and more tragic, more chivalrous yet more connected to his animalistic nature; he asks Belle to marry him every night, but addresses her in the formal, even after they fly off into the clouds. When Belle returns from a prolonged visit to her family, she finds him nearly dead from a broken heart, whereas with Disney he is stabbed when his back is turned.
The main difference, however, from the arguably better-known animated version is the inclusion of Diana’s Pavilion, a place that the Beast tells Belle contains all of his true riches, and possesses the magic that inhabits himself and his castle. He gives her the key, telling her it is the greatest proof of his trust in her, but it is stolen by Avenant, who believes the Pavilion holds worldly treasure. As he and Ludovic approach the Pavilion, Avenant decides to climb and enter through the roof, thinking the door is booby trapped. They peer in through the glass ceiling, spying untold riches, and as the Beast dies, Avenant lowers himself in. He falls into the sights of a waiting sculpture of Diana, who raises her bow and fires, striking Avenant in the heart and transforming him into the next reincarnation of the Beast (not a coincidence that both roles are played by the same actor – the curse of the Beast is circular).
Diana, of course, is not only the goddess of the hunt, but of the moon, the woods, and wild animals; in Greek mythology, she was called Artemis. Classic gods, goddesses, and their myths proliferate throughout Cocteau’s works, and to have Diana fell an intruder, turning him into the Beast, is no mistake or aesthetic choice. Diana, among her other roles, also ensures the succession of kings as well as the protection of nature, and founded an ancient institution known as rex Nemorensis (“king of the wood”), which was led by a priest who came to power by slaying his predecessor in combat, then himself being slain the same way in a ritual, cyclic pattern.
Cocteau’s strength is his ability to make what is presenting dreamlike, part of the subconscious, as if it might or might not be happening exactly as you see it. This is evident in the symmetrical castle, the tracking eyes of the immobile servants, reverse shots and smoke used to simulate magic, Belle’s teleportation malfunction; subtle twists and tricks that one may not catch on the first viewing, but are effective all the same. When he asks the audience to reminisce in their childlike belief, he is telling them that if they give him an inch, he’ll go a mile; it is the classic agreement between the viewer and the magician: if you are willing to believe me, then I will show you wonderful things.
After all, what else could you expect but an enchanting story, as told by someone who knows its tricks?