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
When accepting the Honorary César award in 1977, Tati urged the film industry to support short filmmakers, even if they had to sacrifice a small percentage of their profits. It is through shorts that filmmakers are allowed to get creative and take risks. He points out that without shorts, the careers of people like Keaton, Chaplin, Fellini and Rene Clement would not have flourished. The same is true of himself, even if he humbly left his own name out. Through his short films, we see the evolution of his style that would materialize in his six feature films over fifty years, three of which are arguably masterpieces. This disc has all of the films shorts with his involvement, either as actor, writer, director or even father.
On Demande Une Brute, 1934 – This was written by and starred Tati, but written by Charles Barrois. It is pure slapstick comedy, that is not so much Tatiesque. He claims in one of the supplements that the first film was not very good, but he learned from it. I don’t agree with his assessment, as I think it works as a comedy, even if it doesn’t resemble what would become a Tati comedy. Tati played a naïve youngster, caught in a tough position having to accept a wrestling match with a menacing champion. Plenty of shenanigans ensure, including a major plot point that involved an umbrella, perhaps foreshadowing things to come. 7/10
Gai Dimanche, 1935 – Tati co-directed this short with Jacques Berr, co-starred and co-wrote with Enrico Sprocani (circus clown that went by name of Rhum). This is a better effort than his first film, even if the direction is amateurish and there is some poor framing. I’m a little more forgiving because I know the filmmakers were young and learning their craft. The results on screen are more in line with what Tati would later do, including using long-shots and creative sound effects in order to enhance the humor. There’s even a scene with a malfunctioning sign, which is nearly mimicked in Jour de Fete, and signs would be a recurring motif in all of his future work. 7.5/10
Soigne Ton Gaughe, 1936 – This was directed by René Clément, only his second credited project, and starred Tati. Even though Clément was not yet the accomplished director he would become, it is apparent in this early work that he had potential early on. Even though Tati did not write the story, it played to his tastes and his strengths. He starts out as a bicyclist that resembles Francois from Jour de Fete. He does a boxing routine when he thinks nobody is looking that is much like a performance he gave 40 years later in Parade. Tati again proves himself to be a capable comic actor, and the shot selection and framing are the best of these early works. 8/10
L’Ecole Des Facteurs, 1946 – This is the first sole directorial credit for Tati, and anyone who has seen Jour da Fete can tell. This is the first introduction to Francois the Postman, and is essentially a truncated version of what would become Tati’s feature length debut. Many of the shots look identical to the feature, and it they were not the same shots, then I have to give Tati kudos for recreating them so efficiently. The story begins with the bicycle school, where Francois and two other postmen learn the proper way to ride and hand for certain types of letters. There’s also the famous bike riding itself scene, which ends with it parked comfortable at the café. While it lacks the charm and character development of the feature film, it is quick to get to the point and highlights some of the better gags. 8/10
Cours du Soir, 1967 – This was made on the set of PlayTime, directed by Nicolas Ribowski, starring Tati who dresses in Hulot clothing. But this character is not Hulot! He is teaching an evening class about an unknown subject. If anything, the class is to become Hulot. He starts by doing impressions of different sorts of smokers, then segues to sports impersonations and other pantomimes. Finally they have to practice stumbling on a step and then running into a column, which of course Tati can do masterfully. The students cannot quite manage, and they perform nonsensical calculations (using shoe size?) to figure it out. Even though this is a showcase for Tati’s talents, the humor is not as effective. We’ve seen him do many of these same routines in other places without making up an absurd classroom scenario. 4.5/10
Degustation Maison, 1977 – This was Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff ‘s directorial debut. Tati was not directly involved, but most likely gave his daughter a great deal of assistance. The short film has some Tatiesque elements, and is filmed in Saint-Severe, the same location as Jour de Fete. The premise has locals frequenting a bakery and having an insatiable demand for tartlets. Most of the short just watches them interact, which is the type of observation that her father favored. The joke is that the café is like a bar. As they eat the tartlets, they get looser and eventually appear drunk and get cut off. While the short was one-note and the joke is not very funny, it was a decent debut. 5.5/10
Forza Bastia, 1978/2002. This is a film that Tati began and did not finish. His daughter Sophie wrapped it up over two decades later. This is very much unlike any other Tati film. It is a pure documentary, which I don’t believe he had previously attempted. This is about a football match between Eindhoven and home team Bastia. Not so surprisingly, Tati is more interested in the behavior of the participants rather than the actual match. He films the town as they represent and celebrate their team in the days leading up to the match, waving flags and honking horns through congested traffic. Even during the match, he captures more footage of the fans in the crowd and curiosities on the field, such as the groundskeepers creatively trying to make the soggy field playable. He shoots some of the match, but very little, and the results are anti-climactic. Instead he accomplishes what he most likely intended, which was to capture the culture surrounding the match. This is my favorite of his shorts. 8.5/10
Professor Goudet Lessons – Stéphane Goudet is all over this box-set as the preeminent Tati scholar, so it is only fitting that he conclude the disc with a half hour lecture that concludes the themes and methods of the filmmaker.
One of the more common recipients of Tati’s ridicule is the education system. He made fun of schools, which we see more in his short films rather than his features. He is primarily interested in leisure, especially sports and holidays, and these do become prominent themes of his features. Constant targets are those who take themselves too seriously at anything.
The basis of Tati’s cinema is observation. He likes to show us people looking, and subsequently, he challenges us to observe as well. It is curious as to why he made so few films in such a long timespan. At first it was because he needed time to observe humanity, to pick up on personal nuances and trends that he could ridicule. He says that PlayTime was the only film that the French didn’t like because they didn’t know how to watch it.
For someone that is consistently compared to silent filmmakers, sound is a major attribute of his films. He likes objects or people to have one sound to characterize their function, which he often manipulates in order to highlight ridiculousness or humor.
David Lynch, Olivier Assayas, Michel Gondry, Patrice Leconte and Wes Anderson all contribute snippets to this lecture.
Tati Story – This is a brief bio of the life of Tati through his works. Begins with his silent period, then feature films, and shows many examples from the short films on this disc. For someone with such a limited output of work, his reach and genius was limitless.
Criterion Rating: 8/10