At the outset I must admit I am partial to make believe world, which is more than an escapism but transposing the imperfect world of our making into what might have been. In order to create what is perfect from what is imperfect one needs to put distance. So ‘Once upon a time’ is a kind of magic formula as open sesame or abracadabra and by which you and I may examine the everyday reality in ways that could not have existed otherwise. This kind of marginal annotations to life are very much crucial to our grasp of reality without which we merely swim with the tide. Take for example a girl embarking on a settled state looks in her ideal beau that he be an Adonis and pleases her eye or ears. It would seem beauty as a necessary condition for future bliss is accepted by consensus. The fairy tale ‘the Beauty and the Beast’ questions our preoccupation with beauty by making the suitor of Beauty a beast. Is beauty a requisite for an ideal marriage? The question begs an answer and to each his/her own. This fairy tale made a great impression on me when I first read it. But when I saw it as a film it devastated me as no other film, I am referring here the Cocteau film and not the Disney version.
There have been oodles and oodles of fairy tales adapted for films. If not for these tales think how poorer Disney productions would have fared. Disney had a shot at the Beauty and the Beast (1991) and it not what I am discussing at present. Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast (originally released in France as La Belle et la Bête) stars Josette Day as Beauty and Jean Marais as the Beast. When I first saw it I could not imagine a fairy tale could visually in so daring style, and with considerable charm be presented. Having sat through several movies since then I know now that there was more to it than what the surface showed. I can still recall the wealth of images that assailed me some 26 years ago.
Cocteau of course is preeminently a poet using the artifice of cinema instead of words. For example in the scene where Beauty enters the mysterious castle, we feel along with Beauty the presence. Was it her presence that set off the mystery or the tragic circumstance of the Beast crying out for deliverance? Doors soundlessly swing open as she approaches them; the hallway is lit by candelabras held by living arms and hands extending from the walls. Other disembodied hands point the way to the dining foyer. Partial faces protrude from the marble fireplace, puffing smoke. Beauty dutifully sits at the dining table and excitedly senses the Beast coming up behind her. What is superficially grotesque must give way as her love is kindled by and by. The Beast, by the same token responds to the presence of love and assures her, “Your are in no danger.”
Having pointed out a memorable scene I can only say where a clutch of selective images could produce a certain mood and intertwined meanings that lead us someplace must be poetry. Cocteau succeeds amply therein. His “Orphic Trilogy” (The Blood of a Poet -1930, Orphée -1949, and Le Testament d’Orphée-1960) is further proof to his poetic sensibility. Many viewers and critics consider La Belle et la Bête his finest film work.
Beauty (Josette Day) has two older sisters, Felicity (Mila Parély) and Adelaide (Nane Germon), and a brother, Ludovic (Michel Auclair). Beauty has a suitor, Avenant (Jean Marais) – a friend of Ludovic, and a fop and she puts him off since she is devoted to her father(Marcel André) who needs her. Her homelife somewhat like Cindrella despised by her sisters who are mean and grasping,
The father is a merchant and, until recently, quite successful. He goes on a journey. When he is told that he must die for picking a rose from the Beast’s garden, his courageous daughter (Day) offers to go back to the Beast in her father’s place. The Beast falls in love with her and proposes marriage on a nightly basis; she refuses, having pledged her troth to a handsome prince (also played by Marais). Eventually, however, she is drawn to the repellent but strangely fascinating Beast, who tests her fidelity by giving her a key, telling her that if she doesn’t return it to him by a specific time, he will die of grief.
The film features a musical score by Georges Auric.
Run time:90 minutes
Trivia: Cocteau had reservations about taking on this project. The idea for the film actually came from producer Andre Paulve, who felt that post-War France would be receptive to a fanciful fairy tale. Cocteau owing to his limited experience as a filmmaker got help. He hired Rene Clement as technical advisor, Christian Berard as designer and Henri Alekan as cinematographer.
(ack: metalluk-e.pinions, All Movie Guide-Hal Erickson)
Once Upon a Time—French Poet Explains His Filming of Fairy Tale BY JEAN COCTEAU
The poet Paul Eluard says that to understand my film version of Beauty and the Beast, you must love your dog more than your car. Ordinarily, I would settle for that. However, with so much being written about the film that is entirely false to my intentions, I have decided that I must explain myself just a little.
The French film industry is now going through a curious phase. In the past, our producers found that wit and poetry could be made to pay. Now with the field of distribution constantly decreasing, with production costs increasing, and with theatre admission rates fixed by the government at a non-realistic low level, the business men of the cinema have gradually become patrons of the arts—ill-tempered ones, as you can imagine.
At the present moment, a film that goes against average taste gets few bookings in France, and outside of some ambitious pictures undertaken to maintain prestige, production is almost at a standstill and the studios deserted. A poet engaged in film work must face another great difficulty: the immediate results demanded of a motion picture. A book can wait. A play that has flopped may be revived. A film must please at once, and we therefore have to devise ways to please and displease at the same time. There has never yet been an instance of something new not baffling the esthetes, the critics and the public, lazily accepting familiar formulas. The least challenge is apt to awaken a brutal and unpleasant response.
The only hope for a film is that the public, less blind and less deaf than our judges, I should say more childlike and more open to persuasion, may disobey the veto of the with Beauty and the Beast, see simply and lovingly what blinkers hide from the enthroned intelligentsia.
In short, when I decided to make a film that would be a fairy tale, and when I chose the one that is the least fairy-like—which is to say the one that would need to make the least use of modern cinema techniques—I of course knew that I was going pontiffs and, as has been the case against the grain, against the tide, against the tide. Once more, I was in opposition to current fashion.
To realism, I would oppose the simplified, formalized behavior of characters out of Molière (at the beginning of the film). To fairyland as people usually see it, I would bring a kind of realism to banish the vague and misty nonsense now so completely outworn. My story would concern itself mainly with the unconscious obstinacy with which women pursue the same type of man, and expose the naiveté of the old fairy tales that would have us believe that this type reaches its ideal in conventional good looks. My aim would be to make the Beast so human, so sympathetic, so superior to men, that his transformation into Prince Charming would come as a terrible blow to Beauty, condemning her to a humdrum marriage and a future that I summed up in that last sentence of all fairy tales: “And they had many children.”
I was therefore obliged to deceive both the public and Beauty herself. Slyly, and with much effort, I persuaded my cameraman Alekan to shoot Jean Marais, as the Prince in as saccharine a style as possible. The trick worked. When the picture was released, letters poured in from matrons, teen-age girls and children, complaining to me and Marais about the transformation. They mourned the disappearance of the Beast—the same Beast who terrified them so at the time when Madame Leprince de Beaumont wrote the tale.
When Madame de Beaumont published Beauty and the Beast, she was an impoverished teacher in England, and I suppose that the story is of Scotch origin. Anglo-Saxons manage the horror story, the weird tale, better than anybody else. In fact, in England one still hears tales of lords, the eldest sons of noble families, heirs to the title, hidden away in barred rooms of old castles.
There are three reasons why I have high hopes that Americans will readily grasp my intention. First, America is the home of Edgar Allen Poe, secret societies, mystics, ghosts, and a wonderful lyricism in the very streets. Second, childhood remains longer within the soul than it does here in France, where we try to suppress it as a weakness. Third, the America that now influences French literature is already ancient history for you, and the American is looking forward to something other than what astonishes us but no longer astonishes him.
Here, roughly sketched, I have tried to give you something of what led me into an experience that I shall not repeat, because true experience must be unique. I can only compare it once again to the casting forth of a seed, which falls on favorable or unfavorable ground, blowing where it will.
(From the original press book for the U.S. premiere of Beauty and the Beast/ack: La Belle et La Bête-1946 10Feb03