Many have captured in equally luxurious fantasies the Beast that longs in men to be more than he is, and it is this Beast that Disney aims at literal children. Cocteau makes clear from the first moments of La Belle et la Bête when he asks us for a little bygone wonderment that he aims for the greater feat. In adults who may in time remember what it is to be a child, he asks not only for the doleful Beast but for the Beauty in those who love the men in beasts.
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There’s a reason magicians tell you exactly what they’re about to do. If you don’t expect the fantastical, you can’t believe in it. The more curious way to put it is: you can only believe in magic when you know that it’s false. If you thought the disappearing bird actually reappeared, real life would kick in. You would call wonderment’s bluff. So the magician’s job is to disguise the trick, not as a real thing, but as a trick.
Director Jean Cocteau opens La Belle et la Bête with scrawls on a chalkboard. He tells us, as though we are on his knee, that he’s about to speak words we’ve heard before, but in which we must hear the wonderment as we would from the pledge of a magician. We must see film as a magic trick, as a device built to openly disguise the devices that made it, an illusion of illusions. When Cocteau says, finally, “Once upon a time,” we must expect the fantastical, disenchant it by knowing it to be false, and so in seeing it, believe in it as children do.
Both the 1991 animated Beauty and the Beast and the live-action remake that came out last week seem to provide a preview for the events of Cocteau’s 1946 original. But if the events of Disney’s story are the skeleton of any of its adaptations, imagine that skeleton posed in a drastically different view for Cocteau. Imagine it poised with tragic poetry and longing, lit by the suppressive light of a Dali painting. Put another way, Disney strives to make the disappearing bird believable – Cocteau strives to make you believe that it’s magic. The simple acrylic wistfulness our animated Belle flaunted in social rebellion is a post-modern dream I wouldn’t dare ask of Cocteau, any more than I’d ask Dali to paint a bowl of fruit. The French poet/playwright’s charm lies in another great wide somewhere than that.
What you think you know of the Beast’s palace fades into reflective smoke and penetrating mirrors from the first moments of La Belle et la Bête. What Disney makes a Gothic-tasting playground, Cocteau makes an expressionist’s tactile wonderland. Living arms lead poor innocuous Papa (Marcel André) through the entrance of the castle with eerie candelabra that Joel Schumacher would find eccentric enough to steal for his bawdy Phantom of the Opera film. Statues follow Papa with sullen eyes, living prisoners of the beast or stones brought to life with magic (or both?) we’re unsure. He eats and drinks, served on gilded platters by disembodied hands, as by Lumière or Mrs. Potts but without their culinary cabaret.
As Papa leaves he remembers the requests of his daughters, the younger would-be duchesses whom he failed to dress in new fineries and secret riches (Mila Parély and Nane Germon as characters more associated with a Cinderella tale) and his eldest, who asked for a single rose. “They don’t grow around here,” she says with the kind of earnest longing that makes her a princess before any of the brouhaha with kisses-ever-after. When Papa plucks one of the Beast’s roses, the monster appears and demands recompense for taking from him the only thing he values in the world.
Of course, Belle (Josette Day) gives herself to the Beast as tribute for the rose she asked for, and what Disney saw as a MacGuffin for Cocteau becomes a spiritual symbol of her connection to the Beast. For anyone who thought that Disney’s romance was based too firmly in Stockholm syndrome and lacked a certain literacy in attracting the provincial maiden, here is the essential bond that Disney leaves out: the desperate longing after a shred of beauty in their worlds. In Disney’s version they share captivity; in Cocteau’s, they share such beauty. Like everything else in La Belle et la Bête, the rose is a figure of rhyme or the motif of an image more than a device of the plot. Cocteau constructs the tale only superficially of characters and actions – he works all in images.
The Beast’s horrific entrance is underscored by his somber figure as he carries Belle up the tower, lit by slats of fog like the architecture of his heart, as if set and Beast are the same and this is the real reason its doors whisper and walls creak. Belle’s peasant dress becomes a sparkling gown as he crosses the threshold to her room. He literally smolders when she looks on him after he has killed, less noble even than brave Macbeth who smoked with bloody execution after a valiant deed.
Jean Marais plays Belle’s handsome suitor in town (consider him a less chauvinistic Gaston, whom Belle loves despite her misgivings about leaving her father). He also plays the Prince at the end of the film. What magic of Cocteau’s inner eye also has Marais play the Beast, oddly noble under the whiskers? La Belle et la Bête has this secret in store: that not a flourish of animation but this manipulation of the audience’s own prejudice produces the moral transformation at the film’s ending. We come to resent the dashing suitor and pity the gloomy Beast such that we also resent the handsome Prince, though he is the Beast inside, because of his beauty. The effect is achieved only with this triple performance, just one of the instances where Cocteau read Villeneuve’s little fable and felt it bursting with the images of a poetry in motion. Where Disney demands that you pity the Beast’s ugliness and rejoice in his return to beauty, Cocteau gives us back our voyeur’s shadow, makes us eat our own salad of thorns. By the end, you want to stand up, as Marlene Dietrich famously did at the film’s premiere, and cry her cry.
“Where is my beautiful beast?”
Propelled by Josette Day’s supreme mix of fear, pity, and noble longing, even the sparse dialogue serves as an effective stroke on Cocteau’s fresco of desperate, painful admiration. Each evening at 7:00 the Beast asks Belle to marry him; her eyes widen in a physical Freudian slip, on her brow, in the corners of her mouth, to announce that she is both afraid and, unmistakably, aroused. By each successive night she begins to see a man who longs to improve himself by being loved. So when she returns home, she sees her family for the snobs they are, wallowing in their vices instead of outgrowing them (“Besides being hideous,” the Beast laments, “I am not quick-witted.” Belle replies, “You’re quick enough to recognize it.”). Longing itself becomes the truest object of her love – Cocteau encourages the same in his audience. Like Belle we are propelled weightlessly along the surface of his sights as by some mysterious compulsion, not to love a cartoon beauty, but to see ugliness for what it wishes to be.
Many have captured in equally luxurious fantasies the Beast that longs in men to be more than he is, and it is this Beast that Disney aims at literal children. Cocteau makes clear from the first moments of La Belle et la Bête when he asks us for a little bygone wonderment that he aims for the greater feat. In adults who may in time remember what it is to be a child, he asks not only for the doleful Beast but for the Beauty in those who love the men in beasts. Even among Cocteau’s own works, this haunting little illusion endures as the ode to wonderment, between the lines of which lies the kind of magic that threatens to turn any viewer into that kind of Beauty. It represents the transformation in the human spirit that fairytales have strived to be, every time they pledged those four simple words. La Belle et la Bête is still the only film to deserve them.