When Beauty and the Beast was in production, the Second World War was in its final throes. The entire European landscape was ravaged and devastated by the war machine, and France had been under German occupation. Even though many filmmakers fled or were exiled, the industry continued in a limited capacity. To say that it had been a difficult time for the French would be a gross understatement. It had been horrific. When the film industry slowly began finding its legs, it would be expected that some escapism would be necessary. A bit of that can be found in Children of Paradise (my #1 of 1945). Few, however, would expect such a vast departure from reality as Beauty and the Beast.
Previous to 1946, Fairy Tales had primarily been almost exclusive to Disney animated films. In France, they were even less prominent, as many American films had not been shown during the war. Most people didn’t have a chance to see Pinnochio, Fantasia, Dumbo or Bambi until after the war. I’m a believer that time and context is a major consideration when evaluating film. This makes Cocteau’s project that much more special. For France, it was revolutionary filmmaking, unparalleled in time and space. One could argue that there never has been a live action film like it, and it has influenced many future films, such as the Disney remake and Demy’s Donkey Skin.
The story is familiar to probably every reader. Whether they have seen the Cocteau, they have undoubtedly seen the 1991 Disney version, which takes more from Cocteau than it does the original work from Beaumont. A princess ends up in an animated castle with a beastly creature. At first she loathes him, but grows to like and respect him, and eventually, well, you know the rest. This is a fairy tale after all.
What is also impressive is that Cocteau does not rely on state-of-the-art special effects to achieve is fantasy. He uses set design, musical score, costumes, make-up, cinematography, and mise-en-scene to create the fantasy. There are special effects, but they are only slightly more technical than the effects that Georges Méliès was creating during the early days of films. What’s more impressive is that we hardly notice that the effects are not technical spectacles. Everything else is so well done that it keeps us enthralled with what’s on screen. Cocteau uses artistry and not trickery to immerse us in this world.
I’ve already gushed plenty about this movie, but I have to gush just a little more. Jean Marais deserves credit for playing a number of parts in the film, but most importantly for his work as the Beast. One amazing aspect of the supplements was learning all that went into creating the character. Marais basically had to live in an uncomfortable layer of fur for hours, after spending up to five-hours being prepared in costume. Despite having no face to emote, he manages to perform enough with his eyes and his mannerisms that we understand the character’s feelings and motivations. On different occasions, we see the Beast as fierce, menacing, somber, mournful and jubilant.
Unlike a number of directors, past and present, Cocteau was a true artist. Rather than create a faithful adaptation, he made it his own by adding to the fantasy. The fantastical elements of the house are all Cocteau. He has human hands holding candles, pouring liquids, and human faces lining the walls, watching every move of the living. The fact that the house is alive adds to the mood and mystique. It is both unnerving and enticing to see a ashen face breathing smoke alongside the fireplace.
Beauty and the Beast was not without social commentary. The fact that the other living characters, especially Belle’s sisters, are untrustworthy, manipulative, and only looking out for their own gain speaks to the times. Belle utters a particularly scathing line of dialog that speaks more to modern society, specifically German occupiers and French collaborators: “There are men far more monstrous than you, but they conceal it well.” Cocteau is unequivocally comparing the monstrous nature of the peripheral characters with the real monsters who had governed France for the previous several years. Even if these monsters could sometimes be polite and smile, that does not change the fact that they are monsters. Beauty’s first paramour, Avenant, is very much like these two-faced fiends. He even has Belle fooled during the early portion of the film, but he is revealed to be just as cunning and dangerous as the outwardly evil characters. The Beast may not look like much and acts outside of social norms, but he is genuine. Belle knows what she will get with the Beast, and the more she gets to know him, the more she likes what he is.
I’m careful not to use the word “masterpiece” because it is a term that is too easily thrown about. I’ve used it on a few occasions, which is probably too often because it lessens the magnitude of the word. When I consider something is a masterpiece, I believe it is a truly original, creative and artistic piece of work that is unparalleled. Beauty and the Beast meets my definition, as I consider it the most important and the greatest live action fairy tale that has ever been made. It is the standard for which all tales should be measured, animated or otherwise.
Film Rating: 10/10
Arthur Knight – Film historian, recorded in 1991.
- Germans enjoyed the film. They took to the Aryan looks of the leads and ignored the subtext, although it was obvious in the minds of the French.
- Cocteau added a number of elements to the story. Avenant is an example of a character that was not in the original.
- It was a frustrating shoot because of continued problems. Airplanes would fly over the set, the weather was bad, and passing children would gawk at Marais in costume. There were many delays.
- Cocteau was critical of Alekant’s cinematography, especially the pacing of him setting up, thinking that imperfections would show in the final product. The opposite was true as the photography was celebrated.
- Knight speaks in detail about Cocteau’s homosexuality, contrasted with Noel Coward’s. He speaks about the relationship with Jean Marais, which lasted until 1947, where Cocteau met Edouard Dermit.
Sir Christopher Frayling – Writer and cultural historian, recorded in 2001.
- He gives more of a direct commentary to the scenes as they are shown whereas King provides more background details. Frayling mentions more instances where Cocteau takes poetic license or when the dialog is lifted from the book.
- Critics had attacked Cocteau for not being political. The prologue text is directed more toward them than the viewer.
- Cocteau had been poet, playwright, graphic artist, and a novelist. He was quite the artist, but hadn’t made a film since 1930 and this was his first mainstream film.
- Many of the castle props, including the living sculptures and supernatural elements were inventions of Cocteau. This is more surreal whereas the book was opulent. Disney used the Cocteau ideas for their version.
- Frayling contrasts between Beauty in this version and Disney. She is a post-feminist, intelligent woman in the Disney film, whereas Cocteau portrays her more as an object.
- In original story, Belle stays with Beast for three months while sisters get married to flawed individuals. Cocteau compresses the scenes.
- The fairy tale dates to 2nd century AD and wasn’t written until 1756. Passed down via word of mouth – “mother goose tale.”
- New Wave filmmakers loved Cocteau and Truffaut actually donated money for him to complete a film. He was not embraced in 1946-47.
Philip Glass’s Opera: 1994 opera created for the movie. It functions as another audio track that replaces the dialog. The Glass music is distinctive for those watching Errol Morris films (link to Thin Blue Line). It is a nice option for fans of opera and highlights some of the emotionality of the film. For many it may be the preferred score. It is extremely well put-together and inspired, but I prefer the original.
Screening at the Majestic: A short documentary about the filming with interviews.
During filming in 1946 in Rochecorbon, Tours, Cocteau watched the “rushes” in the Majestic Theater, which no longer exists. They found from the rushes that the film had a poetic and beautiful quality.
Jean Marais (Beast) and Mila Parély (Félicie) are interviewed. Marais respects Beaumont, the original author, but thinks that the magnificence of the film is due to Cocteau. I agree.
René Clément showed up and assisted, just after finishing Battle of the Rails, a prominent movie about the French Resistance. Clément was an AD, but was vitally important. They did not know then how talented he was.
Marais’ makeup took 5 hours to put on and was difficult to take on. The glue cut off his circulation.
Studied the art of Vermeer and others to get the lighting and set design. This is apparent in the scenes of Belle’s family’s house, as the interiors look very much like Vermeer paintings.
Interview with Henri Alekan: This 1995 TV interview with Director of Photography coincided with restoration.
It was a highlight of his life, in part because he was a beginner. It was difficult to make because the war was still going on.
Tricky to film in the dark, but he took on the challenge. Flemish painters like Vermeer, De Hooch, inspired him. Cocteau mentioned them repeatedly and encouraged him to go to museums to study the masters. This was just as important for his future as a cinematographer as making the film.
Secrets Professionnels: Tête à Tête: 1964 episode from French TV.
This short feature is about Hagop Arakelian, makeup artist. He worked for 33 years in the profession, learned from an actor in stage and silent movies in Russia and France.
As he has an actor in the make-up chair, he talks about his methods for applying makeup, how to make eyes look natural and other practices.
The list of directors he has worked with is staggering. They are basically the masters of French cinema. He demonstrates a number of different looks he can create, such as a black/white painted male face or a vagabond looking character with fake facial hair
This piece does not mention Beauty and the Beast, but he refers to it as his best work.
Film Restoration: The movie was not in jeopardy of being lost because all the negatives exist, but had degraded over the years. They replaced 150 frames with those before or after to fill in black frames, while computer procedures were used to correct sound.
Criterion Rating: 10/10
DONKEY SKIN, JACQUES DEMY, 1970
After watching two New Wave-ish films, and the two arguably most popular French musicals of all time, the last thing I expected was a surrealistic and unusual fairy tale. It is based on one of French Author Charles Perrault’s (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty) lesser-known fairy tales, and is nearly a reverse Beauty and the Beast, which was not a Perrault work.
The tale begins with a king losing his fair wife and promising to not re-marry any princess that is not as lovely as her. This seems to be a typical and benign fairy tale premise until it takes a wide left turn. After reviewing the available princesses, he finds that none are worthy of the vow. Finally he realizes that there is one princess that he has forgotten to consider, his own daughter, played by Catherine Deneuve. He decides he must marry her. She isn’t opposed to the idea since she loves her father, but for some reason it doesn’t feel right. She demands that specific colored dresses be made for her, which the king obliges, until she finally requests a dress made out of the hide of a Donkey that, umm, defecates jewels. The king also obliges, and she uses this skin as a disguise to escape.
If that doesn’t sound weird enough, much of the rest of the film has Deneuve traipsing around with a Donkey head on top of her, looking ridiculously silly. On top of that, she encounters a kingdom that is obsessed with the color red. Everything is painted red, including the horses. The fairy tale aspect reminded me in a way of Louis Malle’s Black Moon, albeit with a clearer narrative and without the nudity. To my surprise, I found in the supplements that Demy intended this to be a children’s film, and he said that the incestual content would not seem unusual to young children because they naturally love their parents. I’m no prude, but I wouldn’t show my children a movie that even touches on them having a relationship with their parents, but maybe he is right that a child would miss this taboo. It’s difficult to put yourself in that position as an adult.
While this one doesn’t exactly fit tightly into the already established Demy oeuvre, it contains many elements that are familiar from his earlier films. I wouldn’t call this a musical, but it does contain a few Michel Legrand songs, which the actors sing in the same manner as Umbrellas and Rochefort, clearly lip-synching. The use of color and attention to detail is also Demy-esque. This is the case in the first palace, but it really stands out in the latter kingdom with the strong red color scheme. The costumes are also fantastic, and overall this is a technically accomplished film.
The problem is everything else. This does not quite work as a children’s fairy tale, and the reverse Beauty and the Beast plot is mundane and lazy. Some scenes go on for far too long, such as when the king is reviewing princesses, or later when the prince is trying to fit a ring on a maiden’s finger. It seems that Demy meant this as a commercial work without saying much. I’d say he failed on that level, yet still managed to put together a visual feast.
Film Rating: 4.5/10
Pour Le Cinema: This French TV program contained set interviews with Demy, Deneuve, Marais and others. This is the supplement that has Demy talking about how the children would not pick up on the incest theme. Aside from that, most of it was light and promotional, with the participants talking about how much they liked working on the film.
Donkey Skin Illustrated: This was rather interesting. They showed sketches, drawings and paintings inspired by the story. The best ones were those of the princess wearing her donkey skin. Many of them were the way that Demy portrayed it on screen.
2008 Discussion: This is a round table discussion with a critic, psychoanalyst, and literary buff about the film and it’s themes. While I said above that the film said very little, they brought out a few themes that I had missed, like the theme of liberation that embodied hippie generation of the time.
Demy AFI Interview: This was an audio recording at AFI, which I didn’t listen to in its entirety. In the parts I listened to, they talked about the process. Unlike a lot of other lighter interviews (like the French TV one), the AFI asks good questions about the filmic elements. It seems like an interesting interview.
Criterion Rating: 5.5/10