I just watched Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête again, after I did a careful study of the Mme de Villeneuve and the Mme de Beaumont versions of the “Beauty and the Beast” story. And I’m afraid I have to admit to being a philistine. It’s sad but true: I prefer the Disney movie over Cocteau. Now, some of that might be sheer snarkiness – I’ve been told Cocteau is quality, and Disney is not; told to study Cocteau over Disney; so I go “Hmph!” and set out to find fault with Cocteau. See, I really love the Disney Beauty and the Beast – it’s probably the only Disney cartoon of which I can say that unabashedly (I also really like Enchanted, but that’s a cartoon/live-action mix and pretty much a parody, so not quite in the same category). So if my favourite is being put down in comparison with another, I’m inclined to be prejudiced against that other.
Okay, backing up a bit: saying I set out to find fault with Cocteau isn’t quite true. It’s more like I watched with a critical eye, not entirely ready to be charmed. And there’s no doubt about it: Cocteau’s movie is a masterpiece of film making. It’s very much an “art” film, very beautiful, ethereal, and deep. It was shot right after the end of the war, just after the Nazi occupation of France ended, and they were up against a lot of difficulties – even simple things like procuring enough materials for the set, which would have been unimaginable even for American film makers of the day, let alone today’s studios. That material and financial shortage was also responsible for the film’s being shot in black-and-white; they just couldn’t afford colour. Personally, I find that’s part of the difficulty I have with the movie – there are short bits of scenes where I don’t get what I’m seeing, the visuals don’t make sense. Black-and-white movies are, to me, dated classics; I find it hard to get into them, to really identify with the characters. The same goes, in this case, for the mise en scène, the setting. The male lead, Jean Marais, who plays the Beast, the Prince, and Beauty’s rejected suitor Avenant, is just too pretty for me, in that 40s style of extremely polished handsomeness, blond hair waves set just so, square jaw being oh-so-square (I also don’t admire Cary Grant the way I doubtlessly should, for the same reason). And Josette Day, who is fantastically beautiful, is just so, so – I don’t know, ethereal? Just a bit too much for me. However, that’s entirely my personal taste, not proper criticism. As is my dislike for the gothic – and this movie is nothing if not gothic. Beauty eerily drifts through long corridors with white curtains wafting at her; the Beast alternately smolders (literally – he’s got smoke rising from the ends of his fingers when he really gets the hots for Beauty), looks creepy with a blood-smeared mouth after a kill, and pathetic; disembodied arms hold up candelabra along yet more endless corridors; there are animated faces in the fireplace surround rolling their eyes at Beauty as she paces, waiting for the Beast to come. And all of that is set to the dissonance of a score which kind of sets your nerves on edge – well, at least it does for me. Add to that that the whole thing is just so slow. Both Beauty and the Beast just waft about, moving slowly, gracefully in her case, stiffly and awkwardly in his – he looks like a guy walking in plate armour; I’m not sure if that’s intentional, or the effect of being in very heavy makeup. And that’s the other thing about him – his looks. There isn’t really a whole lot you can do with a man playing a beast, you’re pretty much stuck with a mask or makeup. Well, to me, he looks like Chewbacca with fangs, which I don’t find all that attractive. I know there are many who would strenuously disagree with me; I’ve read more than one account of this movie by women who find Jean Marais’ Beast incredibly sexy (Marina Warner is one, in an article printed in my DVD insert booklet, and Alex Flinn, who wrote Beastly, is another).
Cocteau credits Mme de Beaumont as his hyptotext. And he certainly sticks quite closely to her version of the tale – two wickedly jealous sisters and all, full Cinderella-style. But one thing I’ve never seen anyone mention is that Cocteau was obviously also quite familiar with Mme de Villeneuve’s version. For example, the horse that’s in the movie is lifted right from the pages of de Villeneuve, but never appears in de Beaumont. In the film, the Beast puts Beauty’s father on a white horse by the name of Magnifique, which takes him straight home, and arrives again later to collect Beauty. In de Beaumont, he rides his own horse home; but in de Villeneuve, he is given a “magnificent horse” which takes him home and back to the castle, while his own horse has to find its own way. Now, as I mentioned before, I don’t know French, but I think there’s some resemblance between a magic horse named Magnifique and “un cheval magnifique” which happens to be magic, no? Another possible nod to de Villeneuve might be that Beauty’s sisters ask the father for a parrot and a monkey, which are exactly the kinds of pets Beauty gets in the Beast’s castle (de Beaumont leaves out the monkeys, though she does keep the parrots). Also, de Villeneuve makes a much bigger deal out of Beauty having lots of other suitors; I would be surprised if the character of Avenant wasn’t at least in part inspired by them. One more thing, and I didn’t come up with this idea myself, is that Cocteau also borrowed from another fairy tale writer, Mme d’Aulnoy: the disembodied hands serving Beauty in the Beast’s castle are taken straight from d’Aulnoy’s fairy tale “The White Cat” (La Chatte Blanche), which is a reverse “Beauty and the Beast” (a prince ends up in an enchanted castle and falls in love with a white cat, who turns out to be a princess). So, in other words, Cocteau didn’t just stick to Mme de Beaumont, he freely borrowed from other writers.
And then he made up some stuff himself (I think), and that’s where it gets quite surreal. What’s with that “Diana’s temple” thing? Briefly, the Beast explains to Beauty that he holds all he has by magic (because, you know, being a talking beast is totally un-magical), and that all his wealth lies in this little temple of Diana on the grounds of the castle, which he is not allowed to enter. He gives the key to Beauty. When she goes to visit her family, she tells her brother and his friend Avenant about this. They steal the key, and then go after the Beast to kill him and rob the treasure (the prototype of Gaston in the Disney version). They decide against using the key (so what was the point of the thing in the first place?!?) and just bust in through the glass roof, whereupon Avenant gets shot by the statue of Diana in this temple – right at the moment when the Beast is dying in Beauty’s arms a few hundred metres away. The arrow hits Avenant, and he turns into the Beast and dies – and the Beast, right then, transforms into the Prince (all played by the same actor, I’ll have you remember). Umm – I don’t get it… It’s not Beauty’s love that transforms him, but his rival being shot by Diana? And the rival is now the dead Beast? And what’s Diana doing in the story all of a sudden, anyway? I’m sorry, that’s just a little to surreal for me.
The other thing I have a hard time buying is rather a key point – I have difficulties believing the love story. Not, as I’ve mentioned, finding the Beast terribly attractive myself, I can’t see what Beauty sees in him, and Cocteau never develops their relationship. Where de Villeneuve and de Beaumont tell of Beauty’s increasing attraction to the Beast, and Disney shows it with library scenes and snowball fights, Cocteau – well, doesn’t. There doesn’t seem to be much that changes about either of them, that gives a reason for why Beauty should love the Beast now, when she found him repulsive before. There just isn’t enough to hold my interest in the story the way Cocteau tells it. But then, as I said, that’s mostly personal taste – being a philistine and all, not appreciating surrealist films telling gothic stories.
Maybe I’ll go watch my favourite Belle and Beast waltzing while Angela Lansbury sings “Tale As Old As Time” now. It won an academy award.