Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Review: La Belle et la Bête

Unlike Pinocchio, the story of Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite fairy tales. I've always loved stories of monsters who are kind-hearted on the inside, whether it's Beauty's Beast or Quasimodo or Frankenstein's Monster or the Hulk or Chewbacca.

Jean Cocteau's 1946 French version is a classic and I really can't explain why it's taken me this long to see it. I mean, I loved the Hallmark version with George C. Scott and even Disney's take, so it was given that I'd love this version too. And I did, for the most part.

The make-up and effects on this thing are stunning. Seriously, Cocteau isn't afraid to show close-ups of Jean Marais as the Beast and the make-up is flawless. He looks like an animal, complete with moving ears. And I don't know if this was make-up or just Marais, but when people talk about eyes glistening like pools, they're describing Marais. That's not me being overly in touch with my feminine side, that's an observation of fact.

The Beast's castle is absolutely magical. Cocteau uses disembodied arms (reminiscent of Thing from The Addams Family) to simulate moving, inanimate objects. Rather than have a tea kettle pour itself,for example, an arm sprouts from the middle of the table to perform the service. Arms also hang on walls to hold up candelabras or to open curtains. Statues are scattered around the castle, played by living actors so that they can turn their heads and silently observe the goings on of the Beast and his reluctant houseguest.

The special effects are as low tech as you'd expect from a 1946 film, but Cocteau knows the meaning of the phrase "trick photography" and uses it wonderfully. By simply switching back and forth a couple of times between camera shots, Cocteau makes you marvel as the Beast carries an unconscious Beauty into her room and you see her raggedy maid's dress transform into a beautiful gown as she goes through the door.

Marais is excellent as the Beast too. He's tortured, desperate, noble, and feral, all at the same time. Exactly the hero that the piece needs.

Josette Day is as pretty as she needs to be, but doesn't do much to make Beauty overly likeable. Her attitude towards the Beast changes overnight and she's a very stupid girl when she goes home to visit her dying father. That's all pretty faithful to the fairy tale, but it just means that someone -- either the screenplay writer or the actress -- has extra work to do to make Beauty someone who's worthy of the Beast's affection. Unfortunately, no one does the extra work in this version. I'm not calling that a flaw of the film though. It's just presenting the story the way it is, without improving on it.

The only thing I'd call a flaw about La Belle et la Bête is the ending with it's odd, never-explained connection between the Beast and the handsome young rogue who's been courting Beauty back in the real world. Marais plays both characters, and I don't at all get why they look alike or why what ultimately happens to the rogue happens.

It's a weird enough ending that it almost makes me not want to buy the film, but I'm enough of a fan of the story and the sheer magic that Cocteau enfused it with, that it's going to be something I'll want to watch again and share with others.


JoeKinski said...

I love Cocteau films. He has one of the best senses for what makes a film beautiful. You should check out Orpheus as well, for his take on that myth ... which is very much a-traditional, and yet entirely within the same realm as this one.

I haven't watched this in a few years. I'll have to check it out again (it's probably one of the first 5 or 6 dvds I bought - Criterion so pretty) over the long weekend, but I don't remember the end being confusing. But now, I must look!

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