Beauty and the Beast (La belle et la bête) [DVD]
Screenplay : Jean Cocteau (based on the story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1946
Stars : Jean Marais (Avenant / The Beast), Josette Day (Belle), Mila Parély (Felicie), Nane Germon (Adelaide), Michel Auclair (Ludovic), Raoul Marco (The Usurer), Marcel André (The Merchant)
Jean Cocteau’s visually ravishing fantasy Beauty and the Beast (La belle et la bête) was only the second feature he directed, following 1930’s surrealist experiment Blood of a Poet (Le sang d'un poète). Known primarily as a painter, poet, and novelist, Cocteau deliberately set out to make an approachable art film, one that could engage a mainstream audience looking for adventure and romance, but without dumbing-down the material or sacrificing the complexity of the visuals. In this respect, Beauty and the Beast is an astounding success.
Based on the 18th-century short story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, it tells the simple tale of a merchant (Marcel André) who accidentally stumbles upon the castle of a mysterious Beast (Jean Marais, who was Cocteau’s lover in real life). The merchant plucks one of the Beast’s roses, which carried with it a death sentence. However, the Beast offers to spare his life if one of his daughters takes his place. Although the merchant tries to stop her, his youngest daughter, Belle (Josette Day), sneaks off in the night to save her father’s life by becoming the Beast’s willing captive.
The core of the story is the subsequent relationship between Belle and the Beast and how she eventually falls in love with him despite his beastly appearance. Of course, the Beast is never really that horrifying. Dressed in regal velvet and standing with the erect posture of a nobleman, he has a hairy face that resembles that of a giant cat, and the only time he seems truly fearsome is after he has made a kill and his claws and shoulders curdle with smoke. Buried behind Hagop Arakelian’s extraordinary make-up, Marais gives an unforgettable performance, conveying the Beast’s deep humanity and utter sadness almost entirely with his eyes. He looks at Belle with the kind of longing that only develops after long periods of intense loneliness, making him a truly heartbreaking character. As the Beast, Marais is so compelling that it is almost a letdown when he eventually transforms into Prince Charming. Legend has it that Greta Garbo, after screening the film, intoned, “Give me back my beast.”
Belle, on the other hand, is much like a child, almost to a fault. In the film’s opening epigraph, Cocteau asks us to watch the film with a childlike frame of mind, which not only allows us to accept the film’s fairy-tale qualities, but also to more readily identify with Belle. Self-sacrificing and utterly naïve about the ugliness of the world, Belle is almost too good to be true. Even when her wicked older sisters (Mila Parély and Nane Germon) begin acting uncommonly nice to her as a way of tricking her so they can steal the Beast’s treasure, she accepts their new affection wholeheartedly, immediately forgetting how they had been treating her as an indentured servant.
Narrative aside, Beauty and the Beast is widely regarded for the breathtaking quality of its visuals. Cocteau, working with technical consultant (really “codirector”) René Clément (Purple Noon), divided the film between the real world, that is, the cottage where Belle and her family lives, and the realm of the fantastic, where the Beast lives in his castle (from the walls protrude living human arms that grasp candelabras and comb Belle’s hair). Drawing his inspiration from paintings by Vermeer and Rembrandt, Cocteau worked with cinematographer Henri Alekan (Roman Holiday, Wings of Desire) to draw the audience into the film through light and shadow, creating a vaguely hallucinatory tone that perfectly compliments that fantastical storyline. Refusing to employ the overused techniques of soft focus to give the film a more fantasy-like tone, Cocteau instead relied on composition and set design to convince us of the otherworldliness of his fairy tale—it is both utterly realistic and patently imaginary.
Despite his immense reputation as an artist, film was never Cocteau’s primary canvas, and he only directed six other films after Beauty and the Beast, including 1949’s Orpheus (Orphée) and 1960’s The Testament of Orpheus (Le Testament d'Orphée), which together with Blood of a Poet comprise a trilogy. Cocteau was always a deeply personal artist who rejected critical demands that his films be necessarily political. He was primarily interested in finding material technique to translate his vivid imagination in ways that others could appreciate, and in that respect Beauty and the Beast is one of his greatest achievements.
|Beauty and the Beast Criterion Collection DVD|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|Release Date||February 11, 2003|
| 1.33:1 (Academy Aspect Ratio)|
Beauty and the Beast went through an extensive restoration process in 1995, and the splendid new high-definition transfer on this disc was made from the 35mm restoration duplicate negative. Criterion’s previous DVD release of Beauty and the Beast in 1998 featured a good, but not great transfer taken from a 35mm composite fine-grain master. This new transfer is a stunning improvement in many respects. It is sharper, with better detail and more consistent black levels. The image is also clearer, with significantly fewer scratches and bits of dust (the negative itself was cleaned up during the restoration, and Criterion performed additional digital restoration, as well). In addition, this new transfer, coming as it does from a duplicate French negative, features the original French opening title sequence, as opposed to the specially prepared English titles that appear on the previous DVD.
| French Dolby Digital 1.0 Surround|
French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
There are two audio options on this DVD. You can listen to the film’s original soundtrack, which has also been digitally restored with excellent results, in Dolby Digital monaural. A new addition to this disc is the inclusion of Philip Glass’ Beauty and the Beast opera, which is presented in a stunning Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix. As he has done with several other Cocteau films, Glass composed his opera to function as an alternate soundtrack to the film, meticulously timing the words of the songs to the movement of the actors’ lips. It’s a fascinating experiment that is well-worth experiencing.
| Audio commentary by Arthur Knight |
Film historian Arthur Knight recorded this commentary back in 1991 for Criterion’s Beauty and the Beast laser disc (it was also included on the 1998 DVD). As a historian, Knight is much more interested in relaying the background details of the film’s production, rather than offering a close reading of the film itself. To that end, he provides a detailed and consistently engaging production history of the film.
Audio commentary by Sir Chistopher Frayling
Screening at the Majestic retrospective documentary
Interview with Henri Alekan
Excerpt from Secrets Professionnels: Tête á Tête
Original theatrical trailer
© 2003 James Kendrick