Saturday, November 28, 2015

CANON OF FILM: "BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (aka LA BELLE ET LA BETE)"

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (aka LA BELLE ET LA BETE) (1946)

Director: Jean Cocteau
Screenplay: Jean Cocteau, Illustrated by Christian Berard based on the story by Mme. Leprince de Beaumont



It is now impossible to discuss “La Belle et La Bete” without putting it in comparison to Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”, so let’s start with how Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece was the inspiration behind Disney’s version of “Beauty and the Beast.” Now for me to simply say that without context, one would say “Well, sure, they’re both “Beauty and the Beast,” that’s no surprise, what the big deal?” Well, sure the story wouldn’t have changed much, but what will surprise many people who haven’t seen it is how close Disney actually was to the vision of Cocteau, and why not? Cocteau’s is one of the few great live-action films that I can truly declare without the hint of insincerity or sarcasm, a fairy tale. In fact, in many ways it’s more whimsical and despite being over sixty years old, it’s even more amazing than Disney’s. There are scenes in this movie that I stare at awe at the screen and wonder aloud, “How did they do that?” Not just the make-up, which is startling realistic even today, but also the set design of the castle, which like the Disney version, is a mystical character in of itself, with possibly many smaller little characters, hovering inside its wall. Disney made many of them elaborate characters on their own, with accents, words and personalities, but the hallway filled with candles that are held eerily and moved by outstretched human arms coming from inside the walls, and statues that move and stare and observe, even a kitchen and dining area that seems to run practically on autopilot…, even a magic mirror that… now I know for the most part how they did it, what amazes me most is how incredibly beautiful the effects continue to hold up even today.

Cocteau is one of those artist who excelled in so many fields, starting as a dancer in the ballet actually, before moving onto poetry, filmmaking, theater, etc. He never really stuck to one medium to long, so his name doesn’t necessarily come up in conversations of the best directors, but it should. He often took inspiration from the surreal, multiple times using the Orpheus myth for his films, including “The Orphic Trilogy” of “The Blood of a Poet”, the masterpiece, “Orpheus” and the meta-surreal “Testament of Orpheus”, yet those films while definitely filled with the surrealist touches that defy him, were strangely mostly trying to comprehend these more magical tales in a modern setting. “La Belle et La Bete”, makes no bones about it. It literally tells us right up front, don’t think too deeply, it’s a fairy tale, right in the opening text crawl and that the film is to be enjoyed in the same tense that say, a child would viewing his first magic show. The awes in amazements are appropriate, no matter how often we may now know the tricks of the trade, it’s the how he pulled them off that’s amazing.


I can see why Cocteau insisted on the rare, “illustrated by,” credit to Christian Berard, taking inspiration from Gustave Dore, who did the artwork for the most famous book version of the story, these images could have come out of a children’s picture book. Cocteau was as great and serious a filmmaker France has ever produced, but even he resorted to “Once Upon a Time…” to tell this magical story. Seeing how much preparation and time he put into this film, when most filmmakers wouldn’t have bothered helps me to realize how much of a gigantic standard Disney had to live up to. I mention the Disney film because comparisons are now and forever inevitable. The Disney film will be added to the Canon eventually, probably sooner than later, and like most people in America, especially those of age to have seen Disney’s when it came out, saw their version first. Cocteau’s live action film is better. Partially because animation has the unfair advantage of being better suited to such magical tales than live action, (and it’s to Disney’s credit that they went above and beyond for their version) but seeing the live action, shot mainly on a film stage, looking and whimsical and beautiful as any animated film (and in black and white)…; I’d argue that “La Belle et La Bete,” compares favorably to “Citizen Kane,” or any live action romance or costume drama of the time, or since. I certainly can’t think of any live action fairy tale that’s comparable. And in case you haven’t gotten the point yet, don’t think that because you’ve seen the latter, you don’t have to see this one. There are more-than-enough differences in the versions of the stories to appreciate both of them even more. Few movies have amazed and awed people as in the same way this movie does. Of course the costumes, the whimsical story, and especially the set designs, but what maybe the most striking images in the film, are the incredible close-up shots of both Belle (Josette Day) and Beast (Jean Marais, who plays a few characters in the film). They are striking, their eyes are full of emotions they can’t understand, and they’re both desperate to be loved by each other. He doesn’t use them often, but Cocteau uses them at exactly the right time. Bergman couldn’t have done any better. Combining romance with fantasy, Disney or anybody else has matched Cocteau yet. 
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