Film Review: ‘La Belle et la Bête’

Cited by numerous contemporary fantasy filmmakers – Mexican maestro Guillermo del Toro included – as a major influence on their own consequent bodies of work, French movie magician Jean Cocteau is commemorated by the BFI once again with the 4K rerelease of his 1946 fairy tale, La Belle et la Bête. Based on the 18th century novelist Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont’s classic story of corrupting curses and woodland witchcraft, it’s Josette Day’s eye-catching Belle who eventually falls for the titular Beast – one half of a superb double performance from Jean Marais – following an encroachment by her father.

With three daughters, no wife and little to no luck, Marcel André‘s hapless merchant is pulled from pillar to post in order to make ends meet and satisfy his relentless moneylenders. Stumbling one day upon a looming castle in the dark forest, curiosity gets the better of him as he enters through the front gates. Once inside, he discovers this fortress already occupied by a hideous, hissing creature who threatens to kill him unless one of his daughters will agree to take his place as the Beast’s (Marais) perpetual prisoner. Willing to do almost anything to see her father happy, Belle (Day) takes it upon herself to momentarily lift the curse. Yet, instead of a growling aberration Belle finds a sensitive soul looking for love.

Skilfully balancing the gothic with the comic (the latter courtesy of the clown-like Michel Auclair as Belle’s blundering brother Ludovic), Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête is for many one of the high watermarks for page-to-screen fairy tale adaptations – with del Toro describing it as “the most perfect cinematic fable ever told”. Shot during France’s period of Nazi occupation at the height of the Second World War, it’s hard not to see Cocteau’s film as a modern allegory of sorts; a cautionary tale of freedom’s eventual triumph against the forces of restraint and restriction. As most will already be aware, beauty does indeed succeed in taming the beast, Day’s Belle softening the heart of Marais’ snarling wretch through the power of empathy and compassion.

There are points at which Cocteau’s comic sensibilities almost get the better of both himself and his film, the surrealist horror of the Beast’s ghoulish chateau (complete with living candelabras) almost undone by a juxtaposing scene of rural buffoonery. Thankfully, such is the allure of Cocteau’s unique vision that such contentious clashes are few and far between. A key text in the ever growing canon of female-orientated, psychosexual fables (see also Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber – yet to be captured satisfyingly on screen – and Breillat’s Bluebeard), La Belle et la Bête remains the definitive big screen version of de Beaumont’s masterwork. Apologies, Disney.

Daniel Green

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