The Beauty of Jean Cocteau’s ‘La Belle et la Bête’

By  · Published on March 23rd, 2017

The self-titled Belle and her captor-turned-prince Beast have returned to cinema screens around the world. In Disney’s latest live-action reiteration of one of their much-loved animated fairytales, Bill Condon’s live-action Beauty and the Beast has reintroduced contemporary audiences to the pair. With their return has come explorations of Disney’s representations of gayness, the question of modern viewing habits, and record-breaking box office success (the film has broken the March record for best opening with a $175m domestic gross).

This multiplicity of films on the same tale has been seen before, with the reintroduction of Snow White in 2012 arriving in the form of three very different films. 2012 brought the strong and defiant rebel ‘Snow’ in Snow White and the Huntsman, while Mirror Mirror restyled the classic tale. Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves proves the most thoughtful, with the director turning the tale into a more personal, humanized story.

However, Beauty and the Beast’s reintroduction into popular culture inevitably carries with it the films that precede it. Christophe Gans’ 2014 Léa Seydoux starring version is the next most well-known live-action adaptation, while Disney’s 1991 animation is unsurprisingly on the minds of both audiences and critics. Yet, most crucial of all is Jean Cocteau’s 1946 La Belle et la Bête. Using innovative lighting and cinematography, personified candelabras, and Jean Marais as both villain and hero, Cocteau’s film can be seen to have inspired ‐ unintentionally or not ‐ the films that follow it.

Walt Disney himself had trepidation over whether to adapt the tale following the beauty and magical realism of Cocteau’s. Ultimately his animation studio did, but not without “borrowing,” to put it lightly, many of Cocteau’s signature ideas (with one example being the personified inanimate objects). It’s clear in Condon’s interview with Vulture’s Kevin Lincoln that the live-action director of the 2017 reiteration faced the same hesitancy, with Condon stating that he was intimidated “to a degree because it’s such a beautiful movie.” Condon continues by describing the timelessness of the fairytale, noting that it’s “one of those stories that, in so many different art forms and media, it does continue to stay relevant and get reinvented.”

Yet Condon seems to forget the influence of Cocteau’s story ‐ that itself differs slightly from the original tale by 18th century French author Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s popularized rewritten work ‐ on Disney’s animation that Condon would eventually turn into live-action. The only recent nods to Cocteau’s influence are the subtle “tips of the hat” in the live-action film and Tim Walker’s Le Sang d’un Poète-inspired photoshoot and video with Emma Watson for Vanity Fair. What’s more, Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête proves that the tale lives on in reinvention, but with over eleven reiterations (including Condon’s) since the 1946 French-language version, it has to be asked why Cocteau’s is the one audiences return to. (Short answer: because it’s the best.)

To understand Cocteau’s influence on the films succeeding his La Belle et la Bête, it is important to know the origins of the story he adapted. Often believed to have been inspired by the painting of the “man of the woods” Petrus Gonsalvus, who suffered from a condition that made him grow more hair than normal, resulting in him looking like a half-man, half-wolf, Villeneuve’s tale proves the most complex of the two most prominent versions from 18th-century French society. Villeneuve’s long tale contains most of what audiences see in Cocteau’s adaptation. There’s the dream-like atmosphere as Villeneuve’s Belle dreams of a Prince in the Beast’s castle, the use of magic as poetry with transportation through a ring and a mirror, and the sense of the heightened realist domestic world with Belle’s two vulgar sisters and three brothers. Meanwhile, Beaumont’s abridged version turns Villeneuve’s tale into an archetypal story with less complex and easier-to-understand characters.

It’s clear that the tale of Belle and the Beast’s longevity exists in its ability to be reinvented. And with Cocteau’s film, the story transcends the written word and the liminalities of reality to become, according to Roger Ebert, the “most magical of all films, […] giving us a Beast who is lonely like a man and misunderstood like an animal.” It’s a film, or perhaps more a poem, that isn’t intended for children nor adults, but instead for the poetic mind. Before La Belle et la Bête plays, Cocteau appears in his position of the artist, with us ‐ the audience ‐ as his friends. With a focus on his hands (a motif he has explored through many mediums, such as his first film Le Sang d’un Poète and his portrait photographs with Philippe Halsman) Cocteau describes how children will believe what we (storytellers) tell them. Writing on a chalkboard, he continues describing the simplicity of belief, asking audiences for a “little of this childlike simplicity.” The film begins not after the child’s version of “open sesame,” the significant il était une fois… (once upon a time), but after Cocteau’s signature with the star under his name.

Cocteau’s presence makes it clear that, despite his loyalty to de Beaumont Villeneuve’s original tale, this is his version of the story; and it’s a version that focuses on the clarity of symbolism and imagery. Cocteau understood that “only clean, unadorned photography could properly convey the sense of mystery he was after, making the on-screen world that much more immediate and believable.” Working with cinematographer Henri Alekan and with assistance from René Clément due to Cocteau’s ill health (that is exhaustedly cataloged in his on-set journal Beauty and the Beast: Diary of a Film), the director transformed the everyday into the fantastical and the fantastical into a world of familiarity.

Often, the Beast’s world, which is obscured by the natural scenery of forestry and bushes, makes more sense than the world outside of it. There’s the scene when Belle’s father, played by Marcel André, travels into the forest. With high-angled voyeuristic shots and Georges Auric’s score becoming louder the further Belle’s father journeys in, Cocteau uses the forest as a border between the world of Belle and the world of the Beast. Belle’s home and the Beast’s castle are separated, yet, through the mystery and magic of the enigmatic forest, borders, and boundaries are crossed. To return to the simplicity Cocteau asks of his audience before the film begins, the filmmaker leaves the answers to questions in the forest; all that matters is the remaining poetry of the film.

In his collected essays in The Art of Cinema, Cocteau coins his essays on cinema under the cine-poetry term, calling them Poésie de cinéma. As Robin Buss notes in his introduction to the collection, Cocteau “asserts that the underlying mechanism of cinema is like that of dreams.” Cocteau is neither a filmmaker nor a playwright nor a writer, but a poet; and to him, poets operated not just in the form of poetry, but in the form of dreams. Importantly to him, however, cinematic poetry is not “deliberately ‘poetic’” (which steered into the world of elitist art cinema, according to Cocteau), but derivative from the real and the unreal; from what audiences believe and what they see.

What Cocteau allows his audience to see in La Belle et la Bête can either be seen as a manipulation of his viewer or his ability to use the technicalities of filmmaking as a form of magic. For example, Cocteau has described how he persuaded Alekan “to shoot Jean Marais, as the Prince, in as saccharine a style as possible. The trick worked. When the picture was released, letters poured in from matrons, teenage girls, and children, complaining to me and Marais about the transformation.” A conflict between the artistic and the technical emerges here, as the ugliness of the Prince reminds the viewer of the lure and attractiveness of the Beast.

Yet, for the Beast’s actor Jean Marais (who also played what would be Disney’s version of Gaston, named Avenant, and the Beast-turned-prince), the costume of the Beast was so uncomfortable that Marais developed painful sores while his skin was damaged by the glue used to keep the fur on his body. For Jean Marais ‐ a person who looks more like a Greek sculpture than a mere human ‐ turning into the Beast brought pain and ugliness for the actor, while for Josette Day’s Belle, and for the audience, the pain only came once the Beast had vanished, left only with the uncomfortably real-looking Marais. In fact, there’s the now well-known story that Marlene Dietrich, upon seeing the shimmering prince, called “where is my beautiful Beast?” The technical is turned into poetry here, with Marais’ real-life pain mirroring both the Beast’s internal struggle and the pain audiences feel upon seeing the prince.

With Marais playing three different representations of ugliness, Cocteau translates the magical realism of his world into his characters. Avenant, Belle’s brother, acts as a living embodiment of the ugliness of the interior self juxtaposing with the exterior. The Beast works as an opposite formula to Avenant’s character, while Marais’ final prince serves to remind the audience that Cocteau complicates the idea of the typical hero and villain. What’s more, Marais was Cocteau’s muse and lover, with some using this to read into the idea of a man hiding a secret, freed only by the power of love.

The return of Cocteau’s preoccupation with mirrors as vehicles to other worlds (that would be explored again in 1950s Orphée) is reminiscent of his belief that films are mirrors for both the artist who has made them and the viewer watching. Through this, La Belle et la Bête becomes not just a carefully crafted film of poetry, but also an experience. In each frame and image Cocteau and his cast and crew create layers upon each other, bringing the pieces of broken glass together in order to form a mirror through which the audience can traverse into.

Like the shadow that greets Belle’s father at the Beast’s castle or the personified candelabras and fireplaces that haunt the film, La Belle et la Bête is a film that combines the human and the non-human, the real and the magic, and poetry and film. Ultimately, Cocteau’s film is incomparable to the films that follow it. Instead, it’s a story, a film, a poem, that exists in its own right; something that is recreated again and again, as seen through its influence on Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, or Philip Glass’ opera interpretation of the film.

Belle explores the many mysteries of the Beast’s castle upon first entry. She finds high-ceilinged rooms, luxuriously decorated to compensate for the sense of emptiness present as if the objects can reflect the emotion of the Beast. She also finds the magic mirror, her ill father being her reflection. However, the most impressive part of the sequence is not what Belle discovers, but instead what happens to her upon her discovery. As she travels from room to room, instead of walking she instead appears to be floating. This hovering sequence culminates when Belle is in the Beast’s hallway. Her feet are off the ground yet she still moves, with the floating curtains both recalling the idea of a spectre and foreshadowing the cloth-as-theatre imagery Cocteau uses later in the film upon Belle’s arrival back home. As she moves, it’s ambiguous as to what it is that is moving her ‐ her free will, or what lies in the castle. What is clear, however, is that this is what it feels like to watch La Belle et la Bête, or any Cocteau film.

It’s not evident whether it’s you, the viewer, who’s in control or Cocteau, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is the sense of magic and poetry that lures you in.

Freelance writer based in the UK.