"My story would concern itself mainly with the unconscious obstinacy with which women pursue the same type of man," Jean Cocteau wrote in the press book for the United States premiere of his 1946 classic, Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bete), "and expose the naivete of the old fairy tales that would have us believe that this type reaches its ideal in conventional good looks."
Amen, brother. Beauty is a testament to beauty in all forms, a gilded lesson in love that shows that miracles can happen after all. In the payoff scene of Beauty -- the freshly restored version of which The Criterion Collection is releasing on Feb. 11 just in time for Valentine's Day -- Cocteau gussies up his Prince Charming to the point of overkill. As film historian Arthur Knight recounts in one of two optional commentaries on the DVD, screening attendee Greta Garbo was famously quoted as saying afterward, "Give me back my beast!"
Cocteau's version of Mme. Leprince de Beaumont's fairy tale is drenched in beauty. Cocteau was well-prepared for the project; one of the great renaissance men of the 20th century, the Frenchman was at various times an actor, playwright, novelist, painter, set designer, filmmaker. But above all else, he was a poet, and a true believer in the surrealist movement. It was the surrealists who believed in a "realism beyond reality," which could be found in everything from dreams to magic.
Poetry, surrealism and magic flood this film -- one of those great cathartic products of an artist who, due to a horrible skin condition, was in constant pain. My favorite scene is when Beauty (Josette Day) enters the Beast's castle. She enters a corridor lit by a series of candelabra, held forth on either side by extended human arms and hands (and upright by invisible wiring). As she bursts through the double doors twice her size, Beauty is suddenly captured in slow-motion. Instinctively drawn to the Beast she has yet to meet, she turns corners, ascends a staircase -- her robe flapping as if in a breeze -- and contemplates a final entrance with the obvious grace of a ballerina. It's as if she'd become trapped in a silent film stuck in second gear. No wonder Cocteau slowed her to a crawl; he was probably remembering his days with Serge Diaghilev's Ballet Russes. It's a moment that could easily be dismissed as self-indulgent, and Cocteau knew this. But he also knew the rhythm of poetry and, yes, beauty.
He had a near-perfect vessel in Day, who had the sleekness of a Garbo by way of Kansas farm girl. Even Cocteau's collaboration with cinematographer Henri Alekan -- whose work here is the very definition of the "silver screen" -- could not conceal Day's beauty in her early scenes as a maid to her two cruel sisters. Even in a homely frock and blonde tresses pulled back like a synchronized swimmer, Day bursts from the screen. It's like trying to make Jack Nicholson look subdued; it simply cannot be done. When the Beast approaches her from behind at dinner, she becomes borderline orgasmic, her chest heaving, her hand clutching a knife in one of the film's few swashes of blatant erotic symbolism.
In later scenes, Cocteau dressed up his Beauty in one magnificent gown after another, courtesy of designer Christian Berard. Every gown seemed to flow and sculpt at the same time, with pearls and diamonds curving underneath her cleavage as if in celebration or awe. In another context, they might have looked extravagant; here, they're all in context.
For his Beast, Cocteau actually had his true muse in Jean Marais, his longtime lover, who pulled off an amazing balancing act of a Beast whose desire to love runs completely counter to his more base nature. He is a killer after all, yet Marais lends a gentility and nobility that lesser actors might have failed to grasp. Marais spent five hours a day in makeup -- a rare dedication to outfitting that would become the norm in today's special-effects thrillers -- but more importantly gave personality to his mask. He could do it simply with his gaze through all that fur; they practically burned their way out and into Beauty's eyes. But he also carried himself as a sturdy dancer, measuring his steps in a timed cadence. Above all else, he conveyed the pain of a Beast who fears he will forever be doomed with an unrequited love. One grimace, and you almost want to rush to prop him up.
But we all know the drill, right? As in any great love story, the guy gets the girl. He has to go through his own personal hell, but he gets the girl. His devotion, his grace, his commitment and his perseverance win out over a bad hair day. Which, as we gear up for Valentine's Day, gives us all a little ray of hope.
- Jean Cocteau's 1946 classic, Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bete) -- rereleased on DVD this week -- is a testament to the magic of love.