Review Date: 8-26-09
Release Date: 10-29-1946 (France)
Runtime: 96 min.
Period: Fantasy; 1600s France
This is a “wow” of a movie. The film was made immediately after WWII in France (it was shot in 1945-1946), and it was lovingly directed by maverick/poet/genius Jean Cocteau. The film was a hit with the French particularly, as it provided its audience a chance to escape from the bleak reality of life in their war-ravaged country. La Belle et La Bête is a soothing balm of a fairytale, engendering hope in the promise of new beginnings and restoring faith in the compassionate spirit of humankind. It is a story about breaking free from imprisonment and breaking forth into freedom. It was a message that people needed to hear then, a message that continues to resonate today.
La Belle et La Bête is based on what some people call a fairytale (sidebar: La Belle et La Bête is not legitimately a fairytale, as it does not have roots in folklore – I would consider it “early fantasy fiction” rather than fairytale), written in part by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. The truth is, another woman (Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve) wrote the original story, however, JMLdB revised it so thoroughly that she is now credited with writing La belle et La Bête/Beauty and the Beast. Most of us know the source material fairly well, but I will recap it here for those less familiar:
Belle (Josette Day) is a lovely young French woman, the middle child, in between an older and younger sister, and a presumably younger brother. Their elderly father (Marcel André ) has not had very good fortune in his shipping/import business. It is never mentioned, but there is no mother in the story; we are left to assume she has passed away. Belle’s sisters Félicie (Mila Parély) and Adélaïde (Nane Germon) are haughty, shrewish creatures. They spend all of Daddy’s dwindling money on frivolities, and belittle their sister Belle, who earnestly cares for her father and works as a servant within her own home, cleaning, doing the laundry and cooking. Her brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair) is a self-admitted scoundrel, drinking, gambling and carousing with little thought to life’s more practical matters.
Ludovic has a handsome young friend, Avenant (Jean Marais), who is smitten with Belle. Avenant proposes marriage (in the most brutish fashion), and Belle refuses him. Belle’s father gets news that one of his ships that was thought to be forever lost has now arrived at port. Ecstatic, and convinced that all of his financial problems will be solved with the arrival of the ship, Belle’s father sets off to meet it at the port. He asks his daughters what gifts they’d like him to bring back for them with his new fortune. One sister says, “A monkey!” while the other wants brocade dresses. He asks Belle what she’d like, and she answers simply, “A rose – we haven’t seen one around here in so long…” He promises to bring back a rose for Belle. Meanwhile, Ludovic has gambled away Daddy’s money and doesn’t seem to mind signing over the family’s furniture as collateral on an overdue loan.
Arriving at the port, Belle’s father learns that his creditors have preemptively seized the ship and its contents to clear his debt. He returns, empty-handed, through the woods. He is soon lost in the fog, and comes upon a stately (and enchanted) castle. Weird things happen at this castle – door open by themselves, hallways are illuminated by candelabras held by human arms (not attached to any bodies), a similarly disembodied hand pours a glass of wine for him – and, weary from his journey, he dozes off in an ornate chair. He awakes with a start, and goes outside to find his horse. Near the stable, he notices a beautiful rose. He plucks it, and is startled by an angry creature, La Bête (also played by Jean Marais), who appears on camera as a monstrous beast in clothing befitting royalty.
La Bête is furious that Belle’s father has taken a rose from his tree. La Bête threatens to kill Belle’s father for the impropriety, but then suggests that one of Belle’s father’s children can take his place. He presents Belle’s father with a magical white horse, named Magnificent, to return him back to his home. When Belle’s father has made his decision, all he has to do it get back on Magnificent, whisper “Go where I am going, Magnificent; Go, Go, Go” in its ear, and the horse will take its rider back to La Bête’s castle.
Belle’s father returns home and tells his son and daughters (and Avenant) about the enchanted castle. Belle volunteers to sacrifice herself, putting herself in her father’s place. Avenant is mightily displeased. Belle sneaks out to the stable and whispers in Magnificent’s ear. He whisks her away to the castle.
Belle walks the castle grounds and faints at the sight of La Bête. He carries her up the stairs to her room, where (by powers of magic) she is now wearing a beautiful white princess’ gown. Belle awakes and La Bête invites her to dinner. She is sad and upset, though La Bête tells her that in his castle, they are equals. He will ask her every day to marry him. Belle refuses his offer of marriage.
Over the ensuing days, Belle grows more tolerant of La Bête, asking if they can be friends. La Bête again asks her to marry him, and again she refuses. With the help of a magic mirror, Belle sees that her father is gravely ill. She begs La Bête to let her go home to take care of him. After much negotiation, La Bête agrees to let her go, but only if she promises to marry him when she returns. She agrees. La Bête gives her two parting gifts: first, a magic glove, which, when worn, will transport the wearer anywhere they want to be, and second, a golden key that will unlock the Pavilion of Diana, the place where all of La Bête’s true riches are kept. Belle shoves the key into her bodice, puts on the glove and arrives back at her old home, having promised La Bête to return in a week.
Things back at home have gone from bad to worse. The snotty sisters actually have been forced into menial labor: doing their own laundry. When Belle arrives, they are out in the garden hanging up sheets. They see Belle in her silk and finery, and bristle with jealousy and embarrassment. They immediately run off to gussy themselves up, while Belle reverts back to wearing servants’ weeds, tending to her father and thanklessly serving dinner. Belle’s sisters hatch a plan to steal the golden key, get Ludovic and Avenant to kill La Bête, raid the Pavilion of Diana, and take all of La Bête’s riches for themselves. The sisters trick Belle into overstaying her one-week-pass, stealing the golden key in the process. Belle agrees to stay, and this makes La Bête very upset. He sends Magnificent to Belle’s house with the magic mirror, in an attempt to get her back.
Conspiring in the stable, the sisters, Ludovic and Avenant hear Magnificent approaching. Avenant and Ludovic get on the horse and whisper in his ear. They are whisked away to La Bête’s castle. The sisters take the magic mirror and confront Belle harshly. Belle looks in the mirror and sees the pained, sad face of La Bête. The mirror cracks, and she realizes she doesn’t have the golden key. She puts on the magic glove and arrives at the castle, only to find La Bête near death at the edge of a pond, dying of a broken heart. She takes him in her arms.
Meanwhile, Avenant and Ludovic arrive at the Pavilion of Diana. Afraid of triggering a magical trap, they decide to crash into the Pavilion through the glass roof, rather than using the ill-gotten golden key in the door. Back at the pond, La Bête is weak in Belle’s arms. As Avenant crashes through the glass of the Pavilion of Diana, La Bête breathes his last breath. In the pavilion, a living statue of the huntress Diana shoots Avenant with one of her arrows, and he slowly starts to turn into a beast. Avenant drops to the floor of the pavilion, now a beast like La Bête. At the pond, a handsome prince springs to life where La Bête was. Belle is stunned that he looks exactly like Avenant. Belle and the prince fly into the clouds in a romantic embrace. The end.
I think one of the most remarkable things about this film is that it was made in the long, desolate shadow of the end of WWII. This is a fantasy film with supernatural special effects, which were cutting-edge for their time. La Belle et La Bête is, like Cocteau’s other films, dreamlike, other-worldly and hugely symbolic, in a poetic sense. This film is essentially a metaphor for France and her people during WWII. La Bête is imprisoned by his earthly body, set free at the sacrifice of another, becoming a prince? Belle a prisoner of circumstance, falls in love with Beast, he sets her free? This idea of imprisonment and the journey to freedom is immediately reflective of France’s own imprisonment and liberation during the war. It’s not even thinly veiled; it’s right on the surface. (Sidebar: Today – August 29 – is the day when, in 1944, 15,000 American troops marched down the Champs-Elysees in Paris as Parisians celebrated their liberation from the Nazis.)
The crazy thing is that La Belle et La Bête was Cocteau’s first full-length feature film. That he decided to make this film during one of France’s most bleak periods in history, that he suffered myriad illnesses, camera malfunctions, and other technical difficulties, all the while pushing film technology to its absolute limit is nothing short of a miracle. That is passion. That is pulling an entire county up by its bootstraps. That is great art!
The hardships of making this film (due to the war) are now well known. Cocteau himself wrote a book about the making of La Belle et La Bête called Diary of a Film. Due to limited availability, Cocteau and his Director of Photography had to use several different film stocks just to get the movie in the can. There was limited money for costumes, and a very limited amount of available fabric yardage they could use. Remember that in WWII, everything was rationed; everything was in short supply, including food, gasoline, fabric, paper, bed linens, nylon/plastic, steel, you name it. In the United States, you needed ration coupons to get most of these goods – there were serious shortages, and it became patriotic to conserve. So imagine what it was like in France, where the war was on the street, buildings bombed, abandoned and looted. It was abysmal. I still can’t believe what guts it took to get this movie made.
When you watch the film, one thing that may stick out is the distinct acting style – it feels very stilted to our modern sensibilities. The delivery of dialog is quite stylized, and the dialog itself is very spare and simple. It feels weird at first to modern viewers, but after about five minutes, you are immersed in Cocteau’s world, and you forget that anything is ever weird. It feels like you are totally immersed in his magical dream.
Camera tricks help us to understand the fantasy world. Revolutionary when they were used here, things like backwards shots (film shot regularly, but edited into the film backwards, to give a sense of undoing and magical coming back together), and slow motion (when Belle enters the castle for the first time). We now take all of this for granted, but you must realize that for a 1946 audience, it would have been breathtaking!
The look of the film is really interesting. There has been much talk about the visual influences in the film, particularly Gustave Doré’s engravings and VerMeer’s paintings. However, the word of the day here is chiaroscuro. If you look at this film purposefully, you will see gorgeous contrast in the lights and darks, particularly at La Bête’s castle. This chiaroscuro may have been more a function of switching film stocks – they might have used a different film stock to shoot Belle’s home than the castle – but the result is nonetheless astonishingly beautiful. It feels like every frame is a painting, and this is where the VerMeer influence expresses itself to me most clearly.
La Bête – the creature makeup – he kind of looks like a cat, kind of like a wolfman, or maybe a bear. He refers to himself as hideous, although he is dressed in a manner that is regal and dandified. Belle mentions that perhaps La Bête’s attention to detail and fanciness functions principally to hide his ugliness. And it’s true. La Bête’s castle is resplendent with yards upon yards of sumptuous, luscious fabric, fabric, fabric. The use of fabric in this film is extraordinary – billowing curtains, voluminous upholstery, exquisite costumes, everything reeks of luxe. Which, again, back to the post-war reality, is just inconceivable.
There is an interesting discrepancy in the accreditation of the costume designer/s. The film’s titles state that Castillo and Escoffier are the costume designers, but in Diary of a Film, Cocteau writes the following about production designer Christian Bérard:
“Watching Christian Bérard at work is an extraordinary sight. At (couture house) Paquin’s, surrounded by tulle and ostrich feathers, smeared with charcoal, covered with perspiration and spots, his beard on fire, his shirt hanging out, he gives to luxury a profound significance. Between his small ink stained hands, the costumes cease to be mere props and take on the arrogant actuality of fashion. He makes us realize that a period dress is not merely a costume, but a fashion which belonged to a period and changed with it. People dressed by Bérard look as though they lived at a place, in a definite period, and not as though they were going to a fancy dress ball.
“By a miracle, he has succeeded in merging the style of Vermeer with that of the illustrations of Gustave Doré, to Perrault’s stories which are in the big book with the red and gold cover.”
What Cocteau is alluding to, in fact, is that Bérard is the costume designer. So the mystery deepens somewhat. Maybe in Cocteau’s filmmaking system, the production designer also designed costumes (as was often the case – especially back then – in theater and sometimes ballet and opera). Even so, why credit Castillo and Escoffier as costume designers if Bérard actually designed the costumes? I suppose it might be too late to find anyone who could actually answer those questions. If any of you know Castillo and or Escoffier (they don’t have dates-of-death on imdB, so can we presume they are still living?), I would love to talk with them.
The costumes in this film are beautiful, and completely serve the story. Though the year represented in the film is never mentioned, it looks to be vaguely 1590 – 1630 France. It’s hard to pinpoint the year, but looking at those big lace collars on the women and the bold silhouettes of the men, it feels like the1600s to me.
Take a look at Ludovic and Avenant in their leisurely costumes shooting arrows:
And Adélaïde in her giant-collared dress. This is the first scene of the film, and these costumes help to immediately establish the world in which this story takes place.
Belle, by contrast, is dressed humbly, in servitude to her wicked sisters. Check out her head wrap. It’s straight out of VerMeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring.
And here is Vermeer’s painting…
Belle’s father, leaving to meet his ship in the port, looks like the Quaker Oats guy – not to oversimplify, of course, but he wears the puritanical-looking garb of a man of the times – simple, unadorned, but with a stern silhouette. Notice that the sisters here are dressed in their “daywear” – fancy and pristine, fussy and impractical.
We meet La Bête in the castle’s stable area. He emerges from the shadows:
And we finally get a good look at his face. Notice how fancy his costume is: The organza cuffs, the mirrored paillettes on the cape… The shoulder structure built in to the garment to give him a beastly silhouette…
Inside La Bête’s castle, the carvings on the walls come to life – nothing is as it seems. Here, one of the fireplace carvings watches Belle’s father. Great job, makeup department!!
When Belle sneaks off to ride La Bête’s beautiful white horse Magnificent, she dons a hooded cloak. This is classic “Little Red Riding Hood” stuff, iconic costuming. We know she is going to meet the big bad wolf, er, La Bête.
Here is one of the most beautiful images of the film. La Bête carries Belle up the stairs, as she has passed out upon seeing his face. This is the Gustav Doré moment, in my mind. Look at the contrast of light and dark in this shot. It is simply masterful.
When La Bête puts Belle into her bed, she is magically dressed like a princess. Note that the color of the dress is white, or at minimum, very pale on the grey scale. It implies purity, light, hope. Look at the crystals on the bodice of that dress – exquisite. And please notice the fabric draping on the canopy bed. It’s all about fabric.
The next day, Belle sits down for dinner, wearing black. She is upset with her fate, and note the color of her dress: black. It is beautiful, elaborate, stunning, but the color still reflects her state of being: oppressed.
La Bête, in this scene, has dressed up since the first time we’ve seen him. Maybe he’s dressing up so that Belle finds him more attractive? This is when she mentions that he is using fanciness to cover up for his ugliness. And it’s a point well taken since he is so dressed up.
La Bête gives Belle a necklace as a present, and in the scene that follows, she wears it pinned to her dress. Note the color of the dress: pale. She is getting to know La Bête – in this shot, she has just seen him lapping up water from the pond like a dog – she is developing compassion for him and his situation.
A day later, she walks with La Bête on the castle grounds. Look at her magnificent hairdo. That is incredible. This is the scene where she asks La Bête to be her friend. Note that La Bête wears his big-shouldered cape in this scene – look at the construction of the back of the neck – it’s great.
Later in this sequence, Belle gives La Bête some water to drink from her hands. Look at the contrast in color (light/dark) between Belle and La Bête – hope and imprisonment.
The next day, Belle begs La Bête to let her see her father. She is distressed, and in a negative state of mind, thus: black dress. Look at those sleeves – absolutely exquisite.
The next day, Belle catches La Bête in a compromising position. She’s back to the original princess dress, which works, because in this scene, she truly has become the companion that La Bête was wishing for – when he put her into her bed the very first day. And note: light in color/pale/white.
La Bête grants her wish to go home for a week, and Belle agrees to marry him. Now Belle wears a grand white gown, with the necklace he gave her pinned to it, with a crown and a veil. It looks unambiguously bridal to me. She is now La Bête’s princess.
Here is another view of that stunning, gorgeous dress.
Meanwhile, her heinous sisters have to do the laundry outdoors. Notice the contrast from the first time we saw them. They’re still well-dressed, but now with aprons and big hats to hide their skin from the sun. And look at Ludovic – he is right out of a VerMeer painting.
And then, in a moment of jealousy/competitiveness/embarrassment, the sisters make themselves up after Belle arrives home looking like a princess. Note the big, over-the-top hairstyle. It’s perfect complement to their pomposity.
They try to convince Belle to stay at home longer than a week, breaking her pact with La Bête. Note that Belle is BACK in her servant-wear. She has put herself back in the same hopeless position she was in when we first met her. Again, note the fabric draping all around them in this scene – pure fabric poetry!! I still can’t get over the big hairdo. Genius!
At dinner, Belle serves her sisters and her father. Her younger sister Adélaïde, with that giant collar, looks like a frill-necked lizard. The sisters are terrible to Belle at dinner, and insult her horribly.
Avenant is shown here, having just seen the horse Magnificent. I thought it was a bit odd that he had dingle-ball trim on his cape – this seems like a patently 1940s bit of design. I like it, but it just seemed a little bit curious. Belle’s father also has dingle-ball trim on his cloak – it just said 1940s to me, but I didn’t mind it too much.
Here we see the huntress, Diana, aiming her arrow at Avenant. This costume is amazing – she is a statue come to life. Fabric! Fabric! Fabric! This makes my heart beat fast!
When La Bête dies and turns into the prince, look at the transformation, will you? The silhouette is 100% different from that of La Bête. Everything is different: color, fabric, cut, everything. Note that his costume is now light in color – matching Belle – he has hope, and he is free.
Especially interesting is the fact that this prince is not wearing any shoes – only tights. This made me wonder: was it a literal thing, as in, the beast doesn’t wear shoes, so neither should he as the prince?
These pictures are some of the last images from the film – a bit of special effects work that creates a beautiful final image, like you’d see in a play or an opera. And look at the contrast in dark/light.
I encourage you to see this movie, even if you’ve seen it before. It is worth another look. I think it would be appropriate for children as well, provided they can read subtitles. Or you could just translate for them. My very young nephews loved this film – in translating it as a play-by-play, it was kind of like reading a book to them, accompanied by moving pictures. They really enjoyed it.
The film’s costumes are truly exceptional, and it is a real pity that there was no Academy Award category for costume in 1946 or 1947. This film certainly would have been a contender, especially given the hardships they had to endure to make the film in the first place.
This film is up there in the pantheon of post-war French cinema miracles like Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise), Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games) and another Cocteau masterwork Orphée (Orpheus). If you haven’t seen these films, it behooves you to do so. For my money, these films are some of the most compelling ever made. But then again, I am a Francophile, and might be a little bit biased.
But you won’t argue once you see La Belle et La Bête. It is an extraordinary achievement in filmmaking. Through much struggle, Cocteau and his crew were able to create a lasting testament to hope, faith and freedom. Put it in your queue!