Beauty and the Beast ★★★★★

There is only one word to describe Jean Cocteau’s spellbinding adaptation of Beauty and the Beast - Magical.

The film begins with a direct plea to the audience, a plea to simply believe as a child would: to believe in the fantastical and magical. Whilst it expresses Cocteau’s intent it is perhaps a redundant introduction when it is so easy to believe in this cursed and enchanted world. It is one of those rare films that has enthralled countless generations, and old and young alike, without talking down to either audience. Above all it is the ultimate fairy-tale film that utilises the illusionary qualities of the medium to their fullest.

Whilst the film could be interpreted as having real world parallels (it was released directly after World War II with the Beast perhaps being seen as a manifestation of France itself at the time) it works just as beautifully as a straightforward folktale. Cocteau fills the film with subtle, and not so subtle, sexualised imagery making the Beast’s castle a highly charged and sensual arena for this unconventional but passionate love story. I have read criticisms that the story romanticises domestic abuse which I find interesting when it is Belle who ultimately has control in the relationship and is the one able to mould the Beast into a new person.

In most adaptations of the story the finale is anticlimactic as the audience have been invested in the character of the Beast and not the handsome but bland Prince he becomes. Cocteau understands this and slyly subverts expectation with the film’s climax being an obvious disappointment for Belle as much as it is for its audience as the realisation of what she has gained, but ultimately lost, begins to sink in.

La Belle et la Bête is arguably one of the most striking films of the ‘40s. The beautiful black and white photography, contrasting the luminous light and secretive shadows, helps give the film a truly ethereal and dreamlike quality. Coupled with the charmingly lo-fi but incredibly effective special effects (human arms for candelabras, stone busts with roving eyes etc.) it creates a rich and beguiling world of supernatural enchantment.

The Beast’s makeup deserves special mention too as it completely transforms Jean Marais whilst still providing the human qualities to shine through the heavy prosthesis. Marais is sensational as the Beast, bringing sensitivity, vulnerability and frustration to the role. The fact he struggles to convince in his other two roles, both as the de-cursed Prince and love rival, Avenant, is perhaps a deliberate ploy on Cocteau’s part but I cannot deny that some of the performances are less than impressive, particularly the overacting and jealous sisters. Thankfully, the key roles (Belle and Beast) are exemplary.

It might not be perfect, but like the Beast himself, it is a film with hidden depth and beguiling magic; a flawed but undisputed masterpiece.

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