We’ve now arrived to a point in which I can talk about a crown jewel. Yes, many of you have wondered when I’d be bringing up this version—and now, it is time. This week on Tale As Old As Time Rewind, we’re going to examine the beloved classic version of Beauty and the Beast made in 1946. Directed by Jean Cocteau, this is considered, next to Disney’s, the most iconic rendition—and for good reason. Most other adaptations wouldn’t exist without Cocteau’s being created. And with that, we should give it some respect. So let’s take a look at what many consider to be the best version of Beauty and the Beast to ever be made.
Known as one of France’s greatest filmmakers, Cocteau has left an impression on movie-goers for decades. From his distinct visual flair to his unique risks in storytelling, he was never the typical director that the film-going world was used to in the 40’s and likely would be misunderstood today. He stretched his creative noggin in directions that would eventually lead some of the greatest directors of the last 30 years to leave their own mark on cinema—and Beauty and the Beast might just be his greatest work.
The introduction to the film is shown in a lovely bunch of text written by Cocteau himself, which in my mind began breathing new life into the fairy tale genre (for the 40’s that is):
“Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things.
I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s “Open Sesame:”
Once upon a time…”
It reminds adult viewers that though this fairy tale is ridiculous and ultimately “dated” according to most high-thinking viewers, children can see this story in a different light. They can accept the over-the-top plot elements and allow themselves to fall into the story effortlessly. And any viewer of any age should take a breath and allow themselves to have that ability.
We open up in a country village, and are introduced to this film’s Belle along with her family. In this version, Belle is one of four siblings. Her two sisters are the comedic relief, constantly forcing themselves to appear rich and important to the public at large. Belle’s brother, Ludovic, is also comical but with a devilish angle. His best friend shares these qualities, and is also the first introduction to a “Gaston” type character in any adaptation— here he is named Avenant. He constantly tries to charm Belle and even tries to propose, to which she rejects.
La Belle also features the familiar stealing of the rose moment by Belle’s father, and you know by this point where things are headed for our leading lady. But unlike other versions that have we’ve covered here on Rewind, La Belle et La Bete is by far the most iconic introduction to the Beast’s castle on film—and has yet to be topped, in my personal opinion. From the beautiful human hands stuck in the wall that hold the castle’s many candles, to the creepy atmospheric eyes that literally follow Belle’s every move—Cocteau set a bar that every other adaptation has copied or paid tribute to since. And if you watch other Fantasy films made years later, his influence is quite apparent (Phantom of the Opera (2004) being the most obvious).
This impression left on film history is also due in part to cinematographer Henri Alekan, who makes every frame look as if it was a forgotten painting. Belle appears as the most delicate of ballerinas, while Beast seems at times to almost truly live within the shadows. Alekan seamlessly creatures a scope for Beast’s world that is as large as the one children create in their minds. The castle seems massive, along with the magic within the story’s world—and that is all thanks to Alekan’s vision. Equally beautiful as it is terrifying, he captures what fairy tales should ultimately feel like in visual form.
What is often not discussed when it comes to Cocteau’s version are the performances by the cast. Jean Marais and Josette Day both do incredible jobs in their roles as the Beast and Belle, respectively. Marais perfectly embodies the tragic elements of his character, who battles internally with his gentlemanly aspects along with his inner animal instincts. He’s a Beast that isn’t as focused on his anger, but the torment he feels within the curse. Day’s version of Belle might not (at first) be the most proactive or powerful version of the heroine, but she definitely is considered the most boisterous. She very often will speak her honest feelings and snap Beast out of his mopey state. She rejects his monster-like behavior and scolds him like an animal on several occasions. You can see that her characterization also sets the groundwork for other Belles in the future.
In addition, it is important to note that Marais didn’t play just the Beast/Prince, but also plays Avenant. This allows the audience to make a strange discovery, in that either Belle is destined to be with a specific kind of guy or that the magic turned the Prince into the person that Belle considered the most physically attractive. There are many interpretations to the ending (especially considering Avenant’s outcome) but that is part of the charm of Cocteau’s take—it is all up to the viewer’s discretion.
Similarly in that category is the matter of how the Beast became—well—the Beast. The Prince mentions that his family (whom I assume come from an entirely different land) did not believe in “spirits” and thus those same ones turned the Prince into a monster. But Cocteau introduces an element—a magical pavilion guarded by a statue of the goddess Diana—that may give a real clue to Beast’s horrid curse.
Maybe greed had a bit more to play into this story than we imagine, and perhaps Diana herself was the spirit that constantly is changing ungrateful men into beast creatures as a lesson to humanity. Sure, Disney’s Enchantress might be beautiful and captivating in theory, but Diana certainly strikes much more fear (and arrows) than the 1991’s curse giver could ever do—ultimately making Cocteau’s take a bit more interesting.
The make-up (that was based after Marais’ dog at the time) and the costume design by Christian Bérard and Escoffier are also the stars of this film, and for me (next to the 2014 French version) are the best renditions of these two characters, visually speaking. Fantasy dress porn? This movie is the picture in the dictionary next to such a phrase. And to think that all of this was done in the 1940’s and till holds up better than many other modern films is incredible.
At the end of the day, there aren’t enough positive notions to give when it comes to discussing La Belle et La Bete. Sure, the score at times might seem dated, and the characterizations more cartoony than even Disney’s take—but much like the House of Mouse’s version, there is a definite reason why the 1946 take on the story is a classic. It seems that the versions of fairy tales that take the most unique risks are the ones that pay off, and Cocteau’s might be the greatest example of that.
So what are your thoughts on 1946’s La Belle et La Bete? Have you seen this take on the classic tale? Tell us your favorite moments or memories. As for next week, we’re of course going to cover the one, the only…Disney’s version! Hopefully we can uncover some interesting facts you movie-loving readers don’t know about the 1991 film, while also getting you pumped for the live action adaptation. And don’t worry, a review for that film will be up as soon as my tiny fingers can get it to you.