Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
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Director Jean Cocteau's hand writes the opening credits on a blackboard, erases them, and then writes more, alternating with other credits floating into place. "I ask of you a little … childlike simplicity," he says before proceeding with his showing of “Beauty and the Beast.” The story itself started out in Greek mythology involving Aphrodite and her son Eros whom out of jealousy she wanted to separate from competing Psyche so she turned him into the form of a snake to sacrifice Psyche to, but when Psyche doesn't kill the snake it turns back into the beautiful boy and the ruse of Aphrodite is exposed. In retelling after retelling over a couple millennia it changed into various fairy tales to suit the audience's needs, the beast taking on differing forms as well, until in 1757 an English governess Mme Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont wrote down her version of Beauty and the Beast that she'd taught her charges with the evident purpose of acculturating young adolescent girls into marrying older men.
Our 1946 French “La Belle et la Bête” is a remake of Mme de Beaumont's version, here starting with a hooligan Avenant (Jean Marais) shooting a (phallic?) arrow into the chamber of Belle (La Beauty) where she is toiling Cinderella-like to please her no-account sisters Félicie (Mila Parély) and Adélaïde (Nane Germon), and it will end with an arrow in Diana's Pavilion after Belle has gone through a maturation process. If you want to make the Freudian and/or mythological connections to modern love life, by all means be my guest, but for serious application I recommend the fairy tale Bluebeard as incorporated into The Secret Psychology of How We Fall in Love by Paul Dobransky, M.D.
“Once upon a time,”
Cocteau pointedly starts “La Beast”, “Il était une fois,” setting it in a nonspecific time but producing it at a particular point in history, 1946, as the first major French motion picture after World War II. There are no war scenes in this picture but the content cannot help but correspond to inner feelings of a people who had just endured a war. The Beast being noble of character but feeling shame when it has to kill what gets et (“the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays”) represents the fighting men in a just war who nevertheless regret killing their enemy. Their longing for purity manifests itself in the Beast's desire to marry Belle (La Beauty) (“Serez vous ma femme?”) who is incorruptible.
Belle's father (Marcel André) represents Jewry in its declining fortunes under Hitler. First, there was the old man's business catastrophe vis-à-vis the Jews' economic disenfranchisement, then came his being lost in the foggy wood at night as were the Jews stuck not being able to emigrate—South Africa was one of the few countries that would take them—, and finally, his death sentence for plucking a beautiful rose for Belle, as was a pogrom instituted against a chosen people. The only thing that could save him was Belle's ministration to the Beast (“Voulez vous être ma femme?”) as a dutiful civilian population supported its troops.
Belle's no-good brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair), sisters, and admirer would represent the compromisers and corroborators for whom there was no love lost from the gods. The Beast's palatial mansion filled with disembodied human arms doing their thing would represent a world at war armed to the teeth. The end of the story would be when our brave soldiers perish as the Beast is finished, OR the war being finished ending their “finest hour” (Churchill), as they rise above it all in peace—“Give me back my Beast” (Greta Garbo).
I don't see how “Beauty and the Beast” could have failed to strike such a chord, coming at the moment it did, but such a story lends itself to multiple interpretations that you should feel free to discover for yourself. The virtue of this particular Belle is probably best described in (Matt. 5:5), “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”
Cocteau was a Renaissance man dabbling in a breadth of art displayed in “La Beast” but it doesn't rise to the level of a masterpiece even though some of his tableaus represent famous paintings—the council around the table looks like Vermeer's “The Anatomy Lesson,” et cetera. He deliberately tried to subvert a standard fairy tale form resulting in a subtly skewed take that will surprise the viewer unless he places it right back in its context of the end of WW2, and then it seems more natural. The Criterion Collection has an operatic version by Philip Glass syncing its lines with the standard ones, but the music gives it a different dimension—there are two sets of subtitles to choose from. Walt Disney this is not.
The costumes are supposed to represent the 17th century, but the father dresses like the Pilgrims depicted in 19th century duds, while the Beast wears some kind of Elizabethan zoot suit, and in one shot a boy on the fringes is seen (for a few seconds) wearing modern style short pants. La Bête spent five hours a day prepping in makeup and he still looked ugly.
Cocteau has a habit of using his intimate Jean Marais for major roles, whose acting is wooden; this he does here. Josette Day is a beauty who holds her own as Belle but we're so used to seeing other kinds of feminine ideals that her meekness may be underappreciated.
The pacing and editing all looked fine, and shot in black and white it looks artistic.
I was thumbing through a book of Dear Abby letters when I came across one from a newlywed woman seeking Abby's advice about her husband whose chin grows hair every night, which he then has to shave off every morning. I suppose in the days before we had newspaper advice columns, we had to derive our education from other sources like fairy tales. Different people learn in different ways, and there must be children—and childlike adults—who can appreciate these things, even on the big screen.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older