[This introduction to Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast was presented on March 13, 2015 at the Webster University Moore Auditorium as a part of the 2015 Classic French Film Festival.]
This is the fourth consecutive year I’ve served as a presenter at the Classic French Film Festival, and for me it is an especially exciting return to the podium. In part this is because Cinema St. Louis has entrusted me with the honor of introducing the festival's opening night feature. And in part it is attributable to the fact that tonight’s film is among the most iconic, influential works of both French-language and fantasy cinema. However, the lion’s share of my enthusiasm stems from the sheer distinction of tonight's feature, Jean Cocteau's 1946 film Beauty and the Beast. It is, in a word, a spellbinding creation.
Although the film was adapted from Marie Leprince de Beaumont's beloved eighteenth-century fairy tale, Cocteau faced an uphill battle in bringing his cinematic version of Beauty and the Beast to life. Filmed in the lean, post-Occupation years of late World War II, the production was troubled by shortages and technical setbacks. Moreover, the landscape of French cinema at the time was dominated by poetic realism, setting Cocteau's film in opposition to the prevailing tastes of filmgoers and critics. If his press notes for the film's American release are any indication, the director was exasperated by the French public's inability to accept Beauty and the Beast on its own terms. As he indicates in the film's preamble, Cocteau's wish was that viewers approach this fairy tale with the absolute receptiveness of a child.
This is not to say that Beauty and the Beast is a puerile or simple-minded work. Indeed, it is a far cry from the sweet story of love triumphant that one might expect. Although twentieth century cinema had a penchant for sanitizing and infantilizing fairy tales in the process of translating them to the screen, Cocteau's approach to the source material is psychologically knotty, erotically charged, and strangely contradictory.
The broad strokes of this Beauty and the Beast are familiar, such that even today's elementary school set would likely find it comfortable territory. The film is replete with the tropes of medieval literature and folklore, from fey curses to a magic mirror to a pair of vain, wicked sisters just begging for their comeuppance. De Beaumont's original tale is in part a gender inversion of the medieval motif of the 'loathly lady,” a hideous crone who is restored to loveliness by the affections of a noble-hearted suitor. Cocteau's adaptation also features allusions to classical mythology, befitting the director's persistent fascination with such legends in his films, plays, poetry, and designs.
Despite this well-worn lineage, Beauty and Beast continually upends expectations regarding the contours of a neat and tidy fantasy fable. Plot elements are introduced and then quickly forgotten or discarded. The boundaries between the mundane and magical, normally sharply delineated in fairy tales, are uncannily smudged in Cocteau’s telling. The villains wear their hearts on their sleeves, while virtuous Belle remains a conflicted and enigmatic figure to the end. Far from being cowed by the Beast, this Beauty seems to straightaway discern the romantic and sexual power she holds over him. When the Beast is at long last transformed into a beaming prince, Belle's reaction is one of vague disappointment. This was notoriously mirrored by actress Greta Garbo, who allegedly stood up at the conclusion of a screening and demanded, “Give me back my Beast!”
Certainly, the film's lead performances are central to its otherworldly charms. It’s difficult to imagine the feature succeeding so splendidly without the coquettish, luminous presence of Josette Day as Belle, or without Cocteau’s longtime partner and muse Jean Marais as the Beast. Hissing, snarling, and shrieking like a raspy mountain cat from beneath the layers of fur that conceal his chiseled countenance, Marais nonetheless conveys the sense of a profoundly shamed and troubled soul. One can easily understand why the actor regarded it as one of the most challenging and successful roles of his career.
Even absent its leading man and lady, however, the film would still stand as a sumptuous and amazingly tactile realization of the fantastic, a novel stripe of cinematic magic. If tonight is your first encounter with this magnificent work, it is the marvels of the Beast’s enchanted castle that will doubtlessly linger: disembodied arms holding aloft candelabras that ignite on their own accord; statues that exhale smoke and study interlopers with bright, moving eyes; a locked pavilion filled with riches; a living bed and talking door; a glove and necklace ensorcelled with faerie glamour. Through the power of the Beast's magic, tears become jewels and a loyal steed always knows its rider's wishes. To experience these wonders requires only that, as Cocteau entreaties, we set aside our adult cynicism for a short time and say the magic words, “Once Upon a Time…”