Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of The Beauty and the Beast opens with several men writing away the credits on a chalkboard. The film then moves onto a camera crew about to begin shooting a scene from the film. And then, the film cuts to a preface where the director asks the audience to suspend their disbelief and return to a childlike state experience this classic fairy tale.
This opening gives the film a rocky start because it makes the audience self-aware that they are about to watch a film instead of immersing them into the moment. Also, this is a well-known story and it’s likely that audience who went to see it at least knew a bit about the classic fairy tale. Those that didn’t might be able to gather there’s something fantastical about the film given the title of the film.
It’s a foolish start because the film does a solid job of slowly taking the audience from the reality of Belle (Josette Day) into the surreal world of The Beast (Jean Marais). As the film sets up the characters and their tensions, it draws the audience into reality, but when the film begins to make that shift into the fantastical, it’s through a slow, building sequence where the audience is slowly eased into the fantastical elements of the film.
And, technically, the elements are so well crafted that there’s little disbelief to suspend in terms of the image quality. The living statues and arms that abide in The Beast’s home are authentic and the makeup surrounding The Beast himself is fantastic. He’s he is a fanciful character, but he looks like something living and breathing, not simply a man in a fur suit.
Cinematographer Henri Alekan and production designers Christian Bérard and Lucien Carré mold the sets into surreal dreams. There are moments where the film also refuses to give rooms and objects full definition, making them ambiguous. And the sets in the castle are often designed to be just a bit grotesque and off-putting.
Yet it’s also the action of the film which makes it feel like a dream. When Belle first arrives, the way she moves through the space is ethereal. In fact, there’s a good chance she was rigged to some device to allow her to move without walking. It’s a place where the fantastical is the expected and Belle isn’t sure if this is a dream or a waking nightmare.
While even more of the technical elements can be praised, it is a film with a good story. What makes this version of The Beauty and the Beast notable is that there are no real villains. There might be characters that the audience doesn’t like, but everyone has a legitimate motivation, even if what they do might end up being wrong.
Also, The Beast is a much more sympathetic creature. Yes he’s brash and cruel to others, but he also treats himself the same way, unable to love others because he cannot love himself. His way might seem cruel, but he too is also desperate for that which he lacks the most: love.
It’s a bit of a shame then that the ending feels a bit rushed. It’s more interested in making a cool special effect than making narrative sense. There’s also something a bit off about it and the final moments end up being rushed and neglect to wrap up a good number of the film’s subplots.
Therefore, this version of Beauty and the Beast is bookended by a couple of miscalculated sequences. The majority of this film is fantastic as a work of cinema and also as a fairy tale story. It’s still falls a good deal short of the 1991 Disney version that alleviates most of the issues that plague Cocteau’s otherwise fantastic adaptation.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing