Film Reviews (Seriously) Redux – LA BELLE ET LA BETE (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST)
On September 11, 2011, on a now-defunct personal blog, I published this FR (S) review of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et al Bete. The film recently screened at a theater about 3,000 miles away from where I live (he lamented), so I thought I’d revisit the film and repost my review of it here. Thanks for reading (or re-reading). – Michael
Starring Jean Marais, Josette Day, and Marcel André
Directed by Jean Cocteau
Mention Beauty and the Beast to ten people, and chances are great that all ten will recall the Disney feature from 1991. Its animation was gorgeous, its musical numbers were entertaining, it was the first full-length animated feature to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and it was (and still is) popular with kids AND adults alike. Plus, it promotes positive messages to children that they should not rush to judgment about people they don’t know, and that they should not treat someone differently simply because they look different.
Mention Beauty and the Beast to 100 people, and maybe (hopefully) more than one or two will recall the 1946 French film from writer/director Jean Cocteau that is not so much about judgment and tolerance as it is about love and death.
Sticking closely to Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s original tale, Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête) opens by quickly establishing its characters. Belle (Day) is one of four grown children (three girls, one boy) of a local merchant (André). Of the four children, Belle is her father’s most beloved, and of the three girls, not only is she the most beautiful (her name translates to Beauty) she is the least shallow. Her sisters are obsessed with their waning social status because of their father’s financial woes, while Belle is content serving her father and her family in a Cinderella-type role. In fact, so dedicated is Belle to her family, particularly her father, that she turns down a marriage proposal from Avenant (Marais), much to the young bachelor’s ire.
Belle’s father comes into a financial windfall and must travel to a nearby town for business. The snooty sisters demand that he buy them lavish things while on his trip, but Belle only asks for a rose, “…for there are none here.” Unfortunately, all the money he makes goes towards paying his creditors, so he must return home empty-handed and still in debt. On his trip home, he gets lost in a foggy wood, and happens across an enchanted, seemingly unoccupied, castle. He eats, drinks, and sleeps there, and before leaving, he picks a rose from the garden for Belle. At least he can please one daughter, and know she will appreciate his humble efforts. No sooner is the flower plucked, the father is confronted by The Beast (also played by Marais), who says that he will kill the old man for stealing, unless he sends one of his daughters to take his place. The father rides home on The Beast’s magical steed to explain his predicament to his family, and to contemplate his fate.
Ever the faithful and selfless daughter, Belle sneaks out to take her father’s place at The Beast’s castle. She faints at the monster’s initial sight, and is repulsed by his very being, but over time, she grows to respect and pity him as she learns more about him. During that same timeframe, The Beast falls in love with Belle, and because of this love, he allows her to live, but he does not allow her to leave his domain – until he lets her return home for one week to visit her ailing father. Finally reunited with her family, Belle tells of The Beast and his riches. Her siblings and (the scorned) Avenant immediately conspire to dupe Belle into staying home, so that they can kill The Beast and steal his treasures. Once Belle learns of the plot, she returns to the castle, only to find The Beast near death – not as a result of Belle’s family’s actions, but because of his grief over her absence. A “loving look” saves The Beast, and turns him back into the prince he once was.
Cocteau’s presentation of this classic tale mixes beautiful vision and unique interpretation that results in a film that is clearly for adults. Aided by the wonderful talent of cinematographer Henri Alekan, The Beast’s castle is a magical place with a life of its own. Doors that open and close by themselves are only minor goings-on that Belle and her father experience. Once in the castle, each visitor comes upon a long hallway, flanked on either side by candelabras that not only light themselves, they are held by pale human arms that protrude through black walls. At the dinner table, another arm that protrudes from beneath the table pours the wine. And throughout the castle, the faces that are carved into busts move and watch those who occupy the room. Belle is exposed to even more magic than her father. The Beast gives her a mirror that allows her to see her father at home while she is captive at the castle, a glove that transports her to wherever she would like to go (simply by thought), and a necklace that is made of pearls only when in her possession. But beyond the creative vision, and disguised by an age-old fairy tale about true love, is a clever tale about death and purgatory.
This film reminds me of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) in that the clues to its meaning are only evident once you’ve seen the end of the film. That being said, consider yourself duly warned that SPOILERS lay ahead.
First, consider Belle’s father’s visit to The Beast’s castle when compared to Belle’s visit there. When the father arrives, he wanders the castle freely, calling out to its unknown resident and receiving no reply. He dines and sleeps in privacy and comfort, and he probably would have been able to leave without incident, had he not picked the rose for Belle, thus incurring The Beast’s wrath. On the other hand, when Belle arrives, she runs down the hallway in dream-like slow-motion until she ultimately leaves her feet and floats down another long hall (with stunning, flowing white curtains waving in a gentle breeze) to her room. Why the difference? Why did Belle float and run in slow-motion to a specific destination while her father wandered the castle on his own two feet, at normal speed, and basically at will? Belle went to the castle of her own volition, so it’s unlikely that The Beast’s magic “forced” her to her room. The only explanation can be that Belle is close to death, and that while she might be unwilling to go, she does not resist the trip, maybe recognizing that the flight to her room is the summoning of the afterlife; perhaps a variation of the “long, beckoning tunnel of light” about which near-death survivors often speak.
Other smaller details provide clues about the afterlife. The arms that hold the candelabras and pour the wine, and the moving faces that exist throughout the castle, represent souls for whom no one has prayed, who are forever stuck between heaven and hell. The mirror that allows Belle to see her father represents the mythical pools of water that allowed the gods of mythology to look upon mortals. The Beast’s white steed, which somehow knows where Belle’s house is, where The Beast’s castle is, and how to travel between the two, is not unlike the white horse in the Bible, as described in Revelations Chapter 6, Verse 8: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death….”
Another strong clue is Belle’s request of The Beast to allow her to visit her ailing father for one more week. The Beast struggles with his decision for fear that she will not return. But why does she need to go back when The Beast has already given her the mirror so that she may watch over her father? She has this need because she realizes and accepts her fate, and she left her home without saying goodbye to her father. If you knew that your death was imminent, wouldn’t you want one last chance to tell someone something?
The clincher for me, though, is The Beast himself, in his actions and his words. When he first speaks to Belle, after she awakens from her fainting spell, he tells her that she mustn’t look in his eyes. This is not to spare her from some horrible fate; he is no Medusa. It’s obvious that she is his ticket out of his current existence (purgatory), but it’s also clear that he is smitten with her, and that conflict between his heart and his head gives him cause to be ashamed of not what he is, but of his motives for demanding her presence. He knows that a “loving look” from her, like a prayer to a lost soul, will free him from his limbo, but he hesitates to foster that look from her. Yes, his original intent was to use her, but he did not expect to fall in love with his ticket out. Perhaps his most telling hint is when he entrusts Belle with the key to the pavilion that houses his untold amount of riches. The Beast refers to this treasure as his “earthly riches.” Why “earthly”? If The Beast is merely a man who suffers a great curse, why not just call them his “riches,” or his “human riches”? Because he is no longer of this earth, and regardless of what he looks like, that also means that he is no longer human.
When Belle finally bestows her loving gaze upon The Beast, he turns back into a man (a prince, to be precise, which would explain his wealth). Almost simultaneously, Avenant, who is attempting to steal The Beast’s treasure, is slain by a statue’s (soul’s?) arrow. Laying on the ground, presumably dead or dying, Avenant turns into The Beast. We don’t see Avenant again, but it’s safe to assume that a “changing of the guard” has taken place, and a new Beast must dwell in the purgatorial castle, waiting to be freed by a loving look – a prayer for a new lost and tortured soul. (This would also explain why Cocteau used the same actor to play Avenant, The Beast, and The Prince). What better way to illustrate man than to have one person play three eternally connected roles: Man, soul-in-limbo, and saved soul, the last of which is shown in the last shot of the film, when The Prince and Belle leap into the air, without ever returning to the ground, launching their ascension to the heavens above.