Beauty and the Beast (1946) begins with its director writing the opening credits on a chalkboard in his distinctive, lightly gnarled script. It’s a sly way of preparing the viewer for a film appealing to a child’s uncorrupted receptivity while foreshadowing a cascade of visual effects that are handmade and ingenious. Writer, designer, playwright and visual artist Jean Cocteau was a renaissance man, which can sound like a fancy word for dabbler, but there are sequences in his Beauty and the Beast—not to mention Orpheus (1950)—that are so wondrous, lyrical and brimming with invention as to declare cinema, which he came to late in life, his true métier, the ideal receptacle of all his talents. This adaptation of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 18th-century fairy tale was Cocteau’s third and in some ways most perfect film—perfect because it championed innocence while accruing over its duration a seasoned adult’s knowingness about the thorny nature of romantic love.
To get to the heart of the matter, to the scenes that make me adore Beauty and the Beast, you need only to sit through the director’s scrolling personal disclaimer—Cocteau could be quite precious—and some perfectly enjoyable introductory scenes set in the home of the cruelly exploited Belle (Josette Day). The film comes fully alive about 14 minutes in, when Belle’s father gets lost in a misty, darkened wood, stumbles onto the enchanted compound of La Bête (Jean Marais) and steals a single rose, a crime punishable by death: either his or that of one of his daughter’s. Dad returns home on Magnifique, La Bête’s white steed with internal GPS, to pass the eve of his execution with his family. But Belle, feeling bad because it was she who requested the rose, rises early and, before anyone can protest, mounts Magnifique, who whisks her back to the misty, darkened wood, to the castle of La Bête, a place where disembodied arms carrying torches light your way, where every little item is animate and there’s always a helping hand when you need one. Belle is horrified by La Bête’s ostensible ugliness but touched by his eloquence, politesse and recognition of a beauty and grace in Belle utterly lost on her petty, pretentious sisters. Every bit the aesthete, La Bête is also quite a dandy; in his lacey gauntlets, pirate shirts and velvet robes he could almost be a more hirsute Prince. But pomp aside, I love the fact that what finally turns Belle on is seeing La Bête down on his belly slurping water from a pond. Later she will tell La Bête to drink water directly from her hands. He worries that this will repulse her, but no. “I like it,” she assures him.
Of course La Bête has no intention of killing Belle. Rather, both become captives, she of his lair and he of his hopeless love for her. Belle’s eventual devotion to La Bête could be regarded as Stockholm syndrome, but beneath the story’s coded surfaces we can easily make out the negotiations of love between one who falls at first sight and one who comes to it only gradually—both trajectories are honoured here. The film remains wondrous and heartrending because it maintains an exquisite balance of earthly wisdom and pure magic of the most primitive sort: no one has ever made such inspired use of slow-motion or reverse-motion. Beauty and the Beast is literally full of smoke and mirrors, and this is why it never ages: it doesn’t depend on the vagaries of zippy, rapidly outdated technology but, instead, on the allure of shadows, light and tactile things, many of them human bodies, taking up space. The film is both magical and of this world and I encourage you to bask in its splendour when Metro Cinema screens it this weekend.
Fri, Jun 24 – Sun, Jun 26
Directed by Jean Cocteau
Metro Cinema at the Garneau
Originally released: 1946