#317 La Belle et la Bete

(1946, Jean Cocteau)

“Belle, you mustn’t look into my eyes”

It’s a tale as old as time – a beautiful romantic tale about a young girl enslaved by a beast-man in his magical castle until she is able to turn him into a charming prince through her innocent nature. Wait, that doesn’t sound very romantic at all! Yes, it’s everybody’s favourite children’s story about Stockholm Syndrome, Beauty And The Beast.

However, this isn’t the famous Disney version, this is instead the original French adaptation, La Belle et la Bête. After a wealthy merchant loses his fortune through dealings with unscrupulous people, he finds himself lost in the forest. Upon finding a large castle, he picks a rose from the garden and is immediately caught by a fierce beast-man (Jean Marais), who sentences him to death. However, a deal is made, and he can be spared if he sends his daughter to take his place. And so, Belle (Josette Day) is sent to the castle, where she is imprisoned and must now live with the Beast, who appears to hide a soft side under his gruff exterior.

This version opens similarly to Alice, revealing that European filmmakers have some problem with kids’ stories as a general rule. I will never understand why both movies felt the need to point out that the stories they’re based on aren’t perfect and were written for children, and that adult viewers need to accept that. It’s a bizarre message, and I don’t know why it’s there.

Beyond that little nitpick, La Belle et la Bête has the feeling of a stage play throughout. The acting is overly theatrical and projected, and the sets are often threadbare and obviously constructed out of plywood. This is especially noticeable in the Beast’s castle, which appears to be little more than a dark backdrop with props around it.

La Belle et la Bête is also incredibly surreal. The Beast’s castle is occupied with human shaped decorations and furniture, with arms poking out of the walls holding candles, chair arms being literal arms and general weirdness all round. The movie also gets extremely liberal with the source material at times, in ways that don’t make a lot of sense. The Beast seemingly was cursed by every kind of deity and mythical being imaginable because Cocteau couldn’t make up his mind which one he wanted to be the backstory. And things just don’t really get explained in any way, even in a magical way.

And that’s my main problem with this version of the story. It feels like most of it was made up on the fly with a loose outline of the fairy tale as a script. Scenes just don’t seem to flow very well into one another, and the process of getting Belle to the castle felt massively contrived and awkward compared to other versions of the story. It also just felt really floaty and desperate to be arty at all times, and was just weird for the sake of being weird.

The movie also puts weird priority on what it wants emphasised. It lacks any explanation for why things are happening the way they are, but good lord, does the Beast bang on about how much anguish he feels. His lines cross from character establishment into melodramatic whining very, very quickly, and I couldn’t help but feel that the time he spent stalking Belle through hallways like some bizarre ballet performer could have been better spent letting us know what the hell was going on. I understood what was going on, but that’s because I could fill in the blanks thanks to pre-existing knowledge of the story.

There were exactly two things I liked about La Belle et la Bête: the Stockholm Syndrome implications of the original story are more prominent here than they are in, say, the Disney version, and this is pretty neat, and the Beast makeup was very good for a movie made in the 1940s.

Aside from that though, I didn’t enjoy this version of Beauty And The Beast. It’s a weird movie but with no real purpose. The Disney movie is a much better version in my opinion. Don’t believe me? Ask the dishes!

Starring Jean Marais, Josette Day, Mila Parély, Nane Germon, Michel Auclair & Marcel André
Written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (fairy tale) and Jean Cocteau
Produced by André Paulvé
Music by Georges Auric
Cinematography by Henri Alekan
Edited by Claude Iberia

Favourite Scene: The first reveal of the Beast was kind of cool, I guess.
Scene That Bugged Me: Basically all the time Belle spends back at home midway through the movie.

Watch it if: You like surreal children’s movies
Avoid it if: You want Angela Lansbury to sing you a song

Posted on October 21, 2014, in 1940s, Family, Fantasy, France and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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