La Belle et la Bête
Film Title: Beauty and the Beast
Director: Jean Cocteau
Starring: Jean Marais, Josette Day, Mila Parély, Nane Germon
Running Time: 84 min
Jean Cocteau’s extravagant 1946 fantasy reacquaints a familiar nursery tale – a beautiful young girl goes as a hostage for her father to live with a hideous beast – with its folkloric origins. In a written prologue, the director calls for “a little of this childlike sympathy”. But there’s nothing childlike in the details.
The corridors lit by candles held by human arms anticipate Polanski’s Repulsion. The Temple to Diana at the heart of the Beast’s palace is rife with Freudian undertones. Cocteau’s addition of a doppelganger and love rival, Avenant, makes for a darksome mythology.
Told mostly in pantomime with minimal dialogue, La Belle et la Bête requires 12 new kinds of lip quiver and 50 shades of melancholy from Jean Marais (Beast) and Josette Day (Beauty), who duly deliver all that the face may be. The measured pace of their movements match Cocteau’s stately, otherworldly rhythm.
The rich monochrome is a happy accident: shooting began four months after the German surrender, when colour stock was simply unavailable. But it’s difficult now to imagine the film without cinematographer Henri Alekan’s shadowy compositions.
Elsewhere the film is defiantly opulent: tears turn into diamonds; Diana’s Pavillion is breathtakingly post-Expressionist. The make-up is groundbreaking: the eyeball rolling sequences are audacious.
The story, too, is lavish. Never mind the rose: Cocteau’s rendition brings in magic gloves and enchanted mirrors. It’s a vision that has inspired an opera by Philip Glass and a ballad by Stevie Nicks. In common with its source material, there’s a timeless quality about La Belle et la Bête, a lovely riposte to the question: What is cinema?