As many have been discovering over the past few weeks, there is much to enjoy in Quentin Tarantino’s latest opus Inglourious Basterds: Christoph Waltz’s wonderful performance as Colonel Hans Landa, the many stylistic flourishes, the exercises in screen suspense that rival Alfred Hitchcock’s finest moments, the outflow of languages and wordplay. Easily among my favorite elements are the many tributes to classical French and German cinema. From the many mentions of Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and master auteur G.W. Pabst to the marquee bearing the names of director Henri-Georges Clouzot and his 1943 film Le Corbeau to Mélanie Laurent’s escaped Jew-turned-movie theatre proprietress, the film is chock-a-block full of delicious homages to the elegant world of culture and art Europe produced and enjoyed before and during World War II.
So, in the spirit of Inglourious Basterds’ acknowledgment of that time in history, I myself decided to do a little fishing through the bountiful storehouse of classical French cinema. The following is the first of three pieces (or, hell, maybe even more) I’ll be writing on specific films made in France around World War II. While I’m still pondering potential picks, I’ll be considering and perhaps eventually choosing films from beyond 1945 that still represent and are of that overall time in French cinema. For example, one strong contender is Max Ophuls’ 1952 film Le Plaisir, which features huge French stars of the time like Jean Gabin, Simone Simon and Danielle Darrieux, to whom Laurent’s character is compared at one point in Inglourious Basterds.
Now, without further ado, here is my first entry, which focuses on Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. Enjoy, and stay tuned for the second and third installments!
Beauty and the Beast (1946)
Director: Jean Cocteau
Made by one of the most unique figures not only in cinema, but in art history, the multi-talented, self-proclaimed poet Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film Beauty and the Beast is an enchanting experience. Only the third film by Cocteau (the other two being 1925’s silent short Jean Cocteau fait du cinéma and the quintessential 1930 arthouse film Blood of a Poet), it takes the classic fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and injects it with the artist’s own ideas and sensibilities surrounding myths, magic and the very act of storytelling itself.
Before actually getting started with the narrative, Cocteau presents the viewer with a number of meta-filmic prologues. The first one begins in a room occupied by Cocteau and another man with his back to the camera (I’m going to guess that he’s Jean Marais, the actor who was Cocteau’s friend and lover and appears in the film as the Beast, the Prince he eventually becomes and Avenant, a roguish scoundrel). With a piece of chalk, Cocteau scrawls the first credits for the film on a blackboard, as if to present himself as a professor before a ready and waiting class (us, the viewers), or an artist still literally in the “drawing board” stage of realizing his vision. After the title sequence, an assistant walks on-camera with a clapboard and an offscreen voice says “Action” – a moment which further implies that the audience is invited as witnesses to the goings-on behind the camera before the actual film, the woven fiction of Beauty and the Beast, begins.
But before that happens, there is one more establishing device: a message written in Cocteau’s distinctive handwriting that asks the audience to enter the film while practicing children’s tendency to place faith in simple yet extraordinary things as they give themselves over to stories. It’s an insightful and intriguing request to make at the start of a film; one that says a lot about both it and its maker.
Then, finally, the story begins. We are introduced to Belle (Josette Day), a young woman forced to toil for her wretched sisters (Mila Parély and Nane Germon, who later appeared in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children). She also lives with her brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair, who brings a great wit to his scenes, like the early one in which he mimics his sisters’ harpy-like cries for their footmen and feigns smitten adoration as they tromp across their farm dressed in ridiculously lavish gowns) and her merchant father, who is on the verge of losing everything he owns to debt collectors. Also, there is Avenant, who frequently hangs around the farm while trying in vein to draw Belle’s romantic interest. Upon hearing that one of the lost ships containing his fortune has made it to port, the merchant sets out to investigate, only to find it empty. Dejected, he mounts his horse and begins the journey home in the middle of the night. He of course gets lost in the woods and eventually discovers a mysterious castle where he finds a stable for his horse and a grand banquet. As he leaves, he picks a rose for Belle, which provokes the wrath of the castle’s master: the Beast himself. The terrified father makes a deal with him and promises he will send one of his daughters back to the castle or return himself to offer up his own life. Upon learning of this predicament, Belle chooses to go meet the Beast. Once at his castle, she seems to occupy a grey area between prisoner and guest, wandering through the beast’s fortress and grounds wearing beautiful dresses and jewelry while inadvertently tormenting him with desire. Every night, he joins her and poses the same rather forward question: “Will you marry me?” She always refuses him, but gradually she gains a better understanding of his true nature.
That description should sound fairly familiar for those of you who watched Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at some point in your childhood. But what sets this film apart from the animated version and basically every other adaptation of the same story is Jean Cocteau’s spellbinding vision. In a way, the opening scenes introducing Belle, her family, her country household and her father’s sticky financial situation (partly brought about by Ludovic’s bad borrowing habits) could be seen as yet another prologue, as Cocteau’s magic doesn’t really get fired up until the journey through the forest and the subsequent discovery of the Beast’s castle. Both settings are brought to life by a slew of tricks and techniques: disembodied arms that hold candelabras, pull back curtains and pour wine; moving, smoke-breathing statues; slow motion; reversed photography; fog; disembodied voices; superimposed images; bushes, gates and other objects that appear to move by themselves and more. This is magic of the movies in the most literal sense, the strange and surreal quality of these effects plunging the viewer into a super-cinematic world dictated by the efforts of Cocteau and his crew of technicians. Perhaps most notable among his off-screen collaborators is cinematographer Henri Alekan, who would later work on Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. According to the Internet Movie Database, he had to shoot the film with a variety of different film stocks due to the scarcity of film after the war, thus adding another method of cinematic manipulation to the film – and sure enough, Cocteau said that he felt the consequent inconsistency in the film’s visual quality contributed to the film’s overall poetic effect.
Also to be commended is the film’s decadent production design overseen by Christian Bérard and Lucien Carré. After Belle’s first encounter with the Beast, several statues and carvings of various creatures can be spotted throughout the film, most impressive among them being the massive stone dogs and stags that silently guard the grounds. The interior of the castle is decorated with ornate furniture and a trove of riches: cutlery, goblets, jewelry and furnishings all fit for a king. And then, of course, scowling and presiding over it all is Jean Marais as the Beast, buried under five hours worth of makeup and still turning in a one-of-a-kind performance. Speaking in a scratchy growl, he clearly expresses the menace imposed through his bestial form, transfixed lust for Belle and shame at himself for his appearance and savage tendencies (including the temptation to spill blood, which causes him to give off plumes of smoke). Marais plays the character skillfully, strongly asserting his personality from beneath the layers of makeup and fur that he wears. An everlasting testament to his success is the well-known story of how Greta Garbo (or was it Marlene Dietrich, as Roger Ebert claims?), after witnessing the scene in which the Beast transforms into the Prince at the film’s premiere, cried out at the screen, “Give me back my Beast!”
As seductive and beautiful as the various artificial elements of the film are, and as much as Cocteau asks his viewers to submit to the more unreal qualities of fairy tales, the way he ends the film seems to be contradictorily designed to make one question those very properties. In the quite abrupt turn of events at the end, Ludovic and Avenant scheme to break into the Beast’s pavilion that contains a hefty share of his treasures. While trying to climb through the glass skylight, Avenant is shot in the back with an arrow from a guarding statue. With yet another stunning visual effect, he transforms into the Beast before falling dead to the ground below. Meanwhile, the (original) Beast, who is on the verge of death after having been separated from Belle for a week, suddenly rises to his feet, transformed back into a man. The final scene between Marais’ Prince and Belle is a curious one, as she expresses a certain degree of disappointment towards him and her fate. Her initial reaction to the prince’s resemblance to Avenant is in the negative, and when asked if she is happy, she replies, “I’ll have to get used to it.” Shortly after, the Prince and Belle ascend together to his kingdom, their mingled bodies disappearing behind billowing plumes of smoke. It’s a classic fairy tale ending, but one met with some cynicism, as if to critique the way fairy tales tend to wrap everything up a little too neatly. Like Garbo (or Dietrich), perhaps the viewer was meant to embrace the man while he was still trapped in his beast form and be content with the more truthful relationship between Belle and the Beast in the middle portion of the tale instead of the idealized conclusion. There is a scene that gives a clue towards this point of view: the Beast, stricken with loneliness after having allowed Belle to go back to her father for one week, wanders through his castle, touching his magical possessions in an indifferent sort of way. It is as if to suggest that magic, no matter how wondrous, is a mere contrivance compared to genuine love. Indeed, as marvelous and integral to the film as Cocteau’s cinematic spectacles are, scenes like that make one stop and reconsider what their true worth really is, particularly when held in comparison with more human factors such as the film’s other most crucial element: Jean Marais in his three roles, but most importantly in that of the Beast, who manages to ironically convey more humanity than his other two human characters despite (or in spite of) his non-human form. The film first asks the viewers to accept its artifice, then tells them to look beyond it and consider the truths intermingled with it.
What’s wonderful about this film is that this is just one of many interpretations one can draw from it. I haven’t even gone into other things like the various magical objects of the Beast’s that may, as Philip Glass believes, stand in for the various components of the artistic process, or the more reality-based storyline concerning the merchant’s debts and the subsequent seizure of his furniture as he lies sick in bed while Ludovic and Avenant play chess on a small table before that too is taken away. As with many of Cocteau’s works, there is so much that can be seen and appreciated in his Beauty and the Beast. A film made to both lose oneself in and inspire a reconsideration of the creation of art, it remains to this day an indispensable classic and a treasure of French fantasy cinema.