Beauty and the Beast (La belle et la bête)
Directed by Jean Cocteau
Written by Jean Cocteau from a story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Repeat viewing/Criterion Collection DVD
#197 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
This is one of the few “art” films I can really get behind.
A merchant has three daughters and a son. Son Ludovic is a wastrel and two of the daughters are vain and arrogant. But daughter Belle (Josette Day) adores her father and uncomplainingly acts as servant girl to him and her horrible sisters. The household is completed by the seemingly ever-present Avenant (Jean Marais), Ludovic’s companion and suitor for Belle’s hand. But Belle rejects all of Avenant’s proposals, preferring to care for her father.
The merchant has been waiting in vain for one of his ships to come in. He gets the glad tidings that the last has indeed arrived and sets off to the port. But when he gets there, his creditors have seized the contents and he is penniless once more. He is sent off into the night to return home. On the road, he chances upon a very strange and magical estate. As he leaves the grounds, he plucks a rose, the only gift requested by Belle. As soon as he does so, he is confronted by a Beast (also Jean Marais) who tells him the penalty for rose theft is death and that the merchant will die in three days unless he can convince one of his daughters to take his place.
The merchant returns home and tells his tale. Belle secretly steals away to take her father’s place. The Beast treats her as kindly as possible and says he will trouble her only at the dinner hour when he will continue to ask her to be his wife. This arrangement does not last long as Belle gradually gets used to his bestial ways and begins to have pity for him. But she continues to long for home and he finally agrees to allow her to return for one week. He informs her that if she does not come back to him he will die of grief. As a sign of his trust in her, he gives her the key to his treasure.
Belle is pure of heart. The same cannot be said about her siblings or Avenant who proceed to steal the key and falsely persuade her to delay her return. Anyone familiar with the fairy tale already knows the ending.
Cocteau creates a complete and beautiful fantasy world without computers or much money in a France still reeling from WWII. Indeed the cinematography, art direction, and special effects are the highlight of the film.
Each time I see it, I forget how much humor there is. I just love those rotten sisters! I also love that there is an underlying Freudian coming of age story without any psychiatry. I see the tale of Belle as a young girl’s eventual surrender to the Beast (sex) in men and herself. She resists Avenant and can only accept him by going through the ordeal with the Beast. Far-fetched? Seems more obvious to me each time I see it. All those scenes with the out-of-control Beast in Belle’s bedroom seem to bear me out. Absolutely a classic.