[Join Ettes leader Coco Hames as she moves through the Janus Films Essential Art House DVD box set one film at a time. And best of luck with the Fond Object opening!]
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST directed by JEAN COCTEAU (1946)
Running time: 93 minutes
French with English subtitles
Dude! This movie rules! Okay. Breathe. I can do better than that ... maybe ...
It's neither here nor there which version of Beauty and the Beast is most familiar to you; it's been done many times — from the fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (published in 1740) to the version this film adapts (by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, published in 1756) to the television miniseries with the lady from The Terminator; from the 1991 Disney animated feature throwin' all KINDS of new inventions (natch) to that powerful Meat Loaf video. But Jean Cocteau's 1946 classic is probably the most enduring and well-loved presentation of this magical tale of fantasy.
Cocteau's longtime lover and muse Jean Marais plays both the Beast and Avenant, a character trying to marry Belle (Josette Day) before she is whisked away to the Beast's enchanted castle. Marais also plays Prince Ardent, the man beneath the Beast revealed at the end, who kind of makes you wish he had just stayed a Beast. (His hands smoke when he kills! Come on!) Nevertheless, Marais is so handsome and dashing in that final revelation it's almost comical, so you go with it.
Go as far down the rabbit hole as you care to, but it helps to know that Cocteau ran with the Surrealists, even as he preferred not to be called one himself. This makes sense to me, because the surreal (like the psychedelic) is as real as anything else, and to stretch to define or explain it ruins the very perception or expression of it. This brought to mind Cocteau's multimedia study of our correspondence among disparate periods, textures and art forms, the expressive codes of communication he referred to as "algebra" (which makes total sense to me, in that neither communication nor math make sense to me ...).
You do see some Dali (although no eyeball slicin'). You do see some Weimar Era-esque light play. There's more than a little homage to Georges Méliès, and the movie's visual poetry is somehow distinctly French. It's more playful than you might expect (like, you're gonna get some lolz out of it) and from the elaborate costumes to the physicality of the acting, you are getting very much a stage play as well as a filmic experience.
One thing impossible not to notice is Cocteau's use of various filming techniques, his trickery with lighting, style, transitions and speed. It's freaky. And really cool. And also part of the fun of watching this movie. Oh, is she sort of hovering down the hallway instead of walking now? Did her outfit change completely when she crossed the threshold of that room? Are they flying? Yup. And it's in surprises like these that we harken back to the introduction of the film, where Cocteau tells us:
Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things.
I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood's "Open Sesame":
Once upon a time...