Thursday, January 22, 2015

Beauty and the Beast (La belle et la bête) (Cocteau. 1946)

"Belle, you mustn't look into my eyes. You needn't fear..."

Sometimes movies can be so magical that they stand the test of time no matter how "unwatchable" they may seem to current audiences. Here we have a black-and-white, French film from the 1940s. But nothing about the poet Jean Cocteau's cinematic masterwork is dated. Noting about Beauty and the Beast (La belle et la bête) is cheesy. In fact, it is more like a dream. It inhabits a part of your mind that never evaporates with age. It could be the first film chronologically after Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon to truly capture all the things that make film an exciting medium. Many people have many opinions on what film should be, but I say the best films are the ones that can get you to escape to another place. Cocteau takes us to places unseen before in Beauty and the Beast. The magic of movie-making is nakedly on display with every camera angle, line of dialogue, and special effect. 

This film has an interesting ability to make me feel like an excited little kid. Watching it is just a really satisfying experience. I recently had the pleasure of watching the film for just the second time in my life - and nothing about my reactions had changed since the first viewing many years earlier. Cocteau must have known that his adaption of the traditional fairy tale of the same name, written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, would have this impact on full grown adults, as he actually broke the fourth wall at the very start of the adventure. After the opening credits, the audience is warned about what they are about to see:

"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..."

Belle's father is caught picking a simple red rose from a garden. That garden is on the land inhabited by the Beast. This is where we see the Beast for the very first time. The costume itself is a treasure in film history.  After catching the father with rose in hand, the Beast demands that the father either die for his crime, or send one of his daughters to the castle where she will live forever. Belle, having asked her father to bring her a red rose, feels that this is all her fault, and decides on her own to leave home and move into the Beast's castle.

Anybody familiar with the 1991 Disney adaption should be at least somewhat familiar with the plot of the this film. Though the overall feel will remain unfamiliar to any viewer expecting to see singing teapots or dancing napkins. Instead, the audience is transported into a world of fantasy and horror. The Beast's castle hallways are lined with human arms serving as light fixtures, and the statues in the castle have eyes that follow the happenings of the inhabitants. Even the doors are able to open and close on their own. The castle is, for lack of a better word, alive in this film. It reminds me of an extreme cross between Eraserhead and Salvador Dali. 

Something understated, but definitely present, is the sexual tension between Belle (Josette Day) and the Beast (Jean Marais). As soon as Belle enters her new home for the first time - she can be seen gliding through the hallways like a ghost. Magical forces may be at play, but it seems as though she is drawn to her captor in more ways than one. There is an early dinner scene where Belle is toying with a knife, but not in the way a young woman would normally toy with a knife. Even when the Beast is freed from his curse, Belle is not immediately thrilled with her prince charming. She misses the Beast. So does the audience. Their chemistry is every bit as magical as the rest of the film. Like with many of these writings, I am intentionally being brief with the points of the plot. I do not want to spoil any of the elements that differentiates this surreal classic from Disney. 

Cocteau made several films in his life, but was never considered to be a filmmaker. He was an artist, a poet, who made poetic and artistic films. Images, sounds, and facial expressions tell more of this story than any spoken word. We feel what the characters feel because we understand the concepts of want, desire, and self-consciousness. Interestingly enough, the filming of Beauty and the Beast was made hellish for Cocteau due to a near crippling skin disease that required a dose of penicillin every three hours. The fact that the artist prevailed through pain and made one of the most magically childlike films in history is absolutely astounding. The movie is perfect. That's right. Beauty and the Beast is a perfect movie. 

La belle et la bête: A+ 

Jake's 10 Perfect Movies

1. Pulp Fiction
2. No Country for Old Men
3. Suspiria
4. WR: Mysteries of the Organism
5. La belle et la bête

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