Monday, January 10, 2005

# 6: Beauty and the Beast

I've decided to stop putting any kind of rating on these movies. Who knew that distilling the most complicated films ever made to a single word would seem reductive?

La Belle et la Bête, 1946, dir. Jean Cocteau, screenplay by Jean Cocteau from a story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. This is the first DVD in the series that has a real surfeit of information and extras on it. In addition to the film, this includes two commentary tracks and an alternate soundtrack, plus about an hour of other extras, interviews with the actors and crew, production stills, trailers, and on and on and on. So it took rather a while to see everything, and it's hard to know where to start writing about this movie; I've spent a lot of time with it recently.

Whether you know it or not, Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête has a lot to do with the way you know the story of Beauty and the Beast. For example, Cocteau came up with the details of the Beast's castle that we're familiar with: talking doors, food that serves itself, and so on. The Disney version ripped this off and added the voice of Angela Lansbury. Cocteau's castle is much creepier (although Angela Lansbury can be plenty creepy).

Christian Bérard and Lucien Carré, the production designers, used humans as part of the set decoration, and it's remarkably unnerving. For example, the main fireplace in the castle has two caryatids on either side; their faces are real (extras, heavily made up to look like statues, stood in extremely uncomfortable positions behind the mantel and stuck their faces through the set. One of the best sets in the movie is a hallway with chandeliers held by human arms coming out of the wall. The old "arm-through-the-wall" trick has been ripped off since then time and time again (the arm thing most notably shows up in Labyrinth, which maybe isn't a great movie but made a big impression on me when I was a kid). The sets aren't fantastically impressive by today's terms but they're better than I could have put together in France in 1946. Apparently the production was shut down several times when linens, curtains, and other props were stolen: they were in such short supply in France then.

The costumes are phenomenal, and also have been much ripped-off since then.

The astute viewer will notice some similarities between these two Beasts.

As well as their costumes.

The Beast's mask was made in three parts and took five hours to apply to actor Jean Marais's face. It's hard to see this from a still, but it is incredibly expressive. It was also, apparently, incredibly difficult to photograph; the fur absorbed light far better than skin and so Marais had to be lit very brightly while Josette Day was not. You can kind of see that in the still above, though the Beast seems overlit in this one. I don't know enough about cinematography or lighting to really appreciate the technical achievement here myself, though.

Here's the thing about La Belle et la Bête, though. The ending is unbelievably unsatisfying. I liked the movie a lot until it ended, and then was just pissed off. On seeing the movie, Greta Garbo is reported to have said "Give me back my Beast!" and there seems a general consensus about this. Most critics, e.g., the ones on the two commentary tracks, attribute the let-down of the ending to the lure of evil, the fact that the Beast is inherently more interesting than the perfect Prince Charming, and so on. After watching the movie four times, I think my disappointment was a little different and it has to do with the way Cocteau constructed the ending: he made promises in the narrative that didn't pay off. To elaborate:

In Cocteau's version, Beauty has two wicked sisters and a lout of a brother; she is being wooed by a young man named Avenant (also played by Jean Marais). He's the basis for the Gaston character in the Disney version, but he's not such a bad guy in this movie. You know the basic ending, the Beast is transformed into Prince Charming and he and Beauty live happily ever after. Here's exactly how it plays out:

  • Belle gets the Beast to agree to let her go home to visit her sick father. After some protest, he agrees.
  • To show her how much he trusts her, he tells her all his secrets. They stand on the balcony outside Beauty's room and he points out a pavillion in the distance. He says, "All I possess I possess by magic, but my true riches are in that pavilion. It is called Diana’s pavilion."
  • He further tells her the five secrets to his power. They are:
    • The rose (that Belle's father picked)
    • The glove (his glove can be used to teleport anywhere)
    • The horse (he has a horse that can be used to travel back to his castle)
    • The key (the key to Diana's Pavillion)
    • The mirror (a magical mirror in Belle's room which she can use to see things at a distance).
  • As a token of trust, the Beast gives Belle the key to Diana's Pavillion. She uses his glove and travels home to see her sick father.
  • Belle's sisters, her brother, and Avenant go to great lengths to steal the key to Diana's Pavillion from her while she is home.
  • Belle stays longer than promised, and the Beast begins to sicken. He straps the magic mirror to his horse and sends the horse to Beauty's house.
  • The sisters send Ludovic (Beauty's brother) and Avenant back on the horse (Beauty doesn't know the horse is there). Avenant and Ludovic plan to kill the Beast and steal everything in Diana's Pavillion.
  • The sisters deliver the magic mirror to Belle.
  • Belle gets the mirror, sees the Beast is sickening, decides to go back to the castle to save him. She transports herself back using the glove, but immediately remembers that she's forgotten the key at her house. So she uses the glove to transport herself back home and looks for the key. She can't find it anywhere. While she's at home, the magic mirror shatters.
  • Belle goes back to the castle, finds the Beast. She doesn't say anything about the key she's lost.
  • The boys find Diana's pavillion, start to put the key into the lock, then decide not to use the key, but instead climb on the roof of the pavillion and shatter a skylight.
  • Ludovic lowers Avenant through the skylight—a statue of Diana comes to life and shoots him in the back with an arrow. Simultaneously, the Beast dies in Belle's arms.
  • As soon as Avenant is hit with the arrow, he tranforms into the Beast. Ludovic drops him in horror, and his lifeless body lays on the floor in Diana's pavillion.
  • The Beast is transformed into Prince Charming, and he and Belle fly away.

Cocteau goes to great lengths to emphasise the importance of the five symbols of the Beast's power but it doesn't matter when he starts losing them. Then the brothers go to great lengths to get the key, which they don't use. Belle is distraught that the key is missing, but when she can't find it, she never mentions it again. Ludovic leaves the story after he drops Avenant, and Beauty never knows what's happened to her ex-boyfriend. Neither Belle or the Beast mentions the missing key or the broken mirror, and they don't seem to care what was in Diana's pavillion. There's all this narrative stuff that never pays off, and I think that's what makes the ending so disappointing. It's the old "gun from the first act goes off in the third" thing; if you're not going to make these devices pay off or do anything, they probably shouldn't be in your movie.

It's also true, of course, that Prince Charming's costume is pretty foppish.

Final notes on this. The extras on this DVD are incredible. The best: Philip Glass wrote an opera designed to be performed while this film is projected without sound. So the vocals in his opera sync with the lips of the actors onscreen. This edition has the opera as audio track 2, in Dolby 5.1, and it's pretty amazing. My favorite part is the music that plays when Belle's father explores the Beast's cast.

There's also a documentary about the movie in which they brought Jean Marais, Mila Parély (who played one of the sisters), and Henri Alekan (the cinematographer) back to some of the locations to walk around and do interviews. There's a brief shot of Parély and Marais watching an early scene from the movie; they're both in their sixties or seventies here. The scene they're watching is an early one in which Avenant slaps Félicie ( Parély's character). I don't think Marais was expecting his character to do this because he jumped a little and apologized to Parély for hitting her. She kind of smiled at him and said, "You said that after every take." Maybe my favorite thing on the whole disc.


Anonymous said...

I found this blog when I was searching for pictures of Jean Marais (I'm reading La Princsse de Cleves and he played a prince in the 1961 adaptaion)I saw the Beauty and the Beast title and then noticed the blog name. I was so happy! I'm determined to watch all of them too and rent one or two every week from the local video store. Thanks for the blog :)

Matthew Dessem said...


Thanks for the kind words--I'm glad you're enjoying it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Matthew,

This film was a mixed bag for me, although much more good than bad. It is definitely not your feel good Disney fairy tale. It is unsettling and ultimately a little unsatisfying. At first I thought these were shortcomings of the film (and I think you make some good points about narrative elements being introduced that never pay off). But there is no question that the film is intentionally unsettling (those caryatids, for instance). And as it turns out, Cocteau also intended for that ending to be a disappointment. From an essay by Cocteau included with the DVD package:

“My story would concern itself mainly with the unconscious obstinacy with which women pursue the same type of man, and expose the naivete of the old fairy tales that would have us believe that this type reaches its ideal in conventional good looks. My aim would be to make the Beast so human, so sympathetic, so superior to men, that his transformation into Prince Charming would come as a terrible blow to Beauty, condemning her to a humdrum marriage and a future that I summed up in that last sentence of all fairy tales: ‘And they had many children.’”

If this was Cocteau’s intent, his ending should be judged a success. I certainly felt Belle’s letdown.

For me, production design is where this film excels. Johannes Vermeer is one of my favorite artists. In fact, I’m on a mission to see every one of his 36 known paintings and have just returned from The Netherlands and Paris where I saw nine more Vermeers, bringing my total thus far to 17. So any film that draws inspiration for its mise en scene from Vermeer is automatically going to have some appeal for me. And there are many scenes in this film that are sublimely beautiful (i.e. the sheets, the Beast drinking from Belle’s hand).

But even in the midst of a scene of great beauty, for instance the slow motion shot of Belle first entering the Beast’s castle with her cape flowing and those sheers billowing, there are things that just don’t make any sense, even within the context of the film. Although the scene is shown in slow motion, Belle is obviously running. But why would she be running into the castle of a known beast, into what she can only suppose at this point will be great danger? And when she is looking for the Beast at the end of the film, why is she looking up while she calls his name? He doesn’t fly.

It’s not clear to me whether these aberrations are sloppiness or deliberate attempts at evoking a dreamlike atmosphere where all the dots don’t necessarily have to connect with one another. While I agree that dots don’t always have to connect, at what point does ambiguity (of intent or in design) become a liability?

And I found the acting of the two leads to be histrionic. Perhaps it’s a style of acting I’m just not used to seeing. Interestingly, however, their acting seemed more appropriate, less over the top, when watching it with the alternative operatic soundtrack. And this has gotten me to consider how important sound really is in what I impulsively think of as a visual medium. Altering the soundtrack can alter the way you perceive and respond to a scene. Yes, of course I’ve known that sound can be manipulative, but I’ve never had an opportunity to watch one film with two completely different soundtracks. What bothered me with the conventional soundtrack seemed perfectly natural playing against the Philip Glass score. I’ll be much more attuned to sound after this experience.

Matthew Dessem said...

John B.,

You make a lot of excellent points. Now that I've seen Cocteau's Orphic Trilogy, I think I'd vote for "deliberate attempts at evoking a dreamlike atmosphere where all the dots don't necessarily have to connect with one another." But I only think this works for Cocteau in the framework of a myth: it works here, and in Orpheus, but not so much in The Blood of a Poet or Testament of Orpheus.

Good points re: the Philip Glass score. I think what made that point for me was seeing Nosferatu with the Alloy Orchestra playing their own score: it was terrifying. Without the score, not so much.

steve roberts said...

I agree with the unsatisfactory ending. But I still realy liked the movie.

Things I liked:
-the cinema verite opening sequence, especially where the actors wipe their names off the chalkboard.
-the strange statues of dogs at one of their outdoor locations
-Jean Marais actually being shot with an arrow because it was too difficult to recreate. this is especially interesting considering he and cocteau were lovers. imagine shooting your own lover in the back!
-the strange, ethereal and creepy flying sequence, with it's backwards look and feel

Madona said...

One of the finest movie i have ever seen and nice to see this poster again

Holly said...

Thank you to Steve for the tip off about the opening sequence.

Very useful for talking about Alientation Effect.

Think I am going to pair this with the opening titles of Argento's SUSPRIA.

Enjoying the blog, Matt, and working through it from the beginning, albiet a bit late to the party,

Barry B said...

"There's all this narrative stuff that never pays off, and I think that's what makes the ending so disappointing."

See, I think much of it is meant to be regarded as symbolic, and without narrative value except in so far as it demonstrates how much the sisters, brother and suitor (who is not Beauty's boyfriend; he's her wannabe) invest in it--while Beauty and the Beast see them only as means to ends, for use as needed, otherwise to be set aside.

Where I find the ending doesn't work is because the reverse photography trick just isn't up to achieving what Cocteau wishes from it. A very little of that goes a long way with me, and in this sequence I want a piece of new magic, not an old trick that is so easily analyzed.