La Belle et La Bête: a visually sumptuous film both clear in its themes and ambiguous in its details

Jean Cocteau, “La Belle et La Bête” (1946)

A beautiful and sumptuous film, this interpretation of the famous fairy tale by surrealist writer / film-maker Jean Cocteau is an investigation into the polarity of deceptive appearance and hidden reality. Within the story of the young girl who sees the loneliness and suffering of a fellow being in spite of his repulsive and bestial visage is other layers of fairy tale stereotype – Cocteau throws in a faux-Cinderella piece with two wicked sisters, a cowardly brother and handsome but spiritually beastly suitor – and a motif of duality expressed in the casting of Jean Marais as both the suitor Avenant and the Beast. There may well be a Freudian sub-text at work here, most notably in the ending when the hero and heroine of the piece fly into the clouds, never to return (or at least not until they’re required to smoke cigarettes in bed together).

The glory of the film is in its design: most scenes are set up as dioramas in which the action takes place. Long white curtains swirl from windows like wisps of smoke as Belle walks down a corridor. As characters pass by props, candelabra lights held by human hands turn on, doors open and close of their own accord and a statue’s eyes move to follow the character’s movements. In one memorable scene, Belle glides through the Beast’s castle in slow motion, her veil and the drapes of her dress flowing out behind her like a wedding-gown train. There are many scenes of similar exquisite beauty, many of them suggesting purity and innocence but with a suggestion of something a little more sinister within. The unearthliness of most scenes is highlighted by the use of unconventional camera angles: furniture and other props are placed in such a way as to emphasise something unusual about them.

The characters are portrayed well by the actors though Jean Marais as suitor Avenant, the Beast and Prince Ardent dominates through his physicality and expressive and handsome face. As Beast, heavily made up and wearing prosthetics, his eyes manage to successfully convey the Beast’s inner torment about the curse laid upon him and the encroaching “bestial” nature that threatens to subsume more noble qualities. The minor characters of Belle’s sisters Felicity and Adelaide, her ne’er-do-well brother Ludovic and his equally lazy pal Avenant embody the idea that appearance is not everything and it’s the inner person who matters more. Belle is a Cinderella character who appears innocent yet reveals an ambiguous nature when she confesses to Ardent that she did indeed love Avenant in spite of his boorish behaviour towards her earlier in the film.

It’s possible that a number of in-jokes feature in the film: in Marais portraying both Avenant and the Beast, Cocteau not only draws attention to the polarities of beauty / ugliness and outer appearance / inner spirit but also aspects of human sexuality: both Avenant and the Beast have good and bad qualities that respect and threaten Belle respectively. Avenant may be selfish but he is also brave, energetic and, well, ardent; the Beast may be a saintly figure in some respects but he’s also creepy in demanding that Belle must say whether she will marry him or not.

The dialogue is made simple enough for children to be able to follow though the fairy tale retelling works for both adults and children. Children will quickly see the moral behind the narrative: the good and faithful are rewarded while greedy people get their just desserts. Adults are sure to catch the many little ambiguities that appear in the film.

The stunning look of the film and its effects are all the more wondrous when you consider it was made in post-war France when the country was still in ruins: the film-makers used ingenuity and creative thinking in setting up a number of effects. The result is a film with a gorgeous look and a magical quality that back up its themes.


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