(French, 1946, 90 min., b/w)
It is one of the most stunningly beautiful films in the long history of the cinema, a film that, in its day, made people fall in love not merely with its gorgeous stars, Jean Marais and Josette Day, but with the very idea of the movies. With its unbearably lush images, borrowed from the Flemish masters, and its symbols imported from Freudian psychology, Beauty and the Beast is a stately and sexy parable of desire, a very grown-up bedtime story.
The film marked the first film surrealist Jean Cocteau had had total control over since the brilliantly precocious short Le Sang d’un Poete in 1930. For his first feature, he chose a fairy-tale that, he said mysteriously, had appealed to him because of what was psychologically true in the story: "I chose that particular fable because it corresponded to my personal mythology." Yet, production was stymied at every turn by fates that seemed dreamed up out of Cocteau's fevered imagination. The film was shot in the summer of 1945, in a France only just beginning to get used to the fact of Liberation. Getting props as simple as white sheets and a deer carcass meant an entrance into the shady world of the black market; cameras and equipment were dilapidated and scarce; raw film stock was precious; studio time was nearly impossible to get, and the electrical power went on and off almost randomly. Casualties among the cast due to accident or illness--actor Jean Marais, and actress Mila Parely--were frequent and serious. Cocteau himself fought the flu and jaundice as the film was being completed. Marais, said Cocteau, deserved the highest praise dealing uncomplainingly with a five-hour makeup session every day for much of the shoot. The only break the film got was when Cocteau stumbled onto the estate of Rochecorbon in Touraine, a manor house perfect for Beauty's unsettlingly romantic encounters with the Beast, and a setting whose stables and exteriors also helped give the film its unique period flavor. Yet throughout the ordeal, cast and crew labored (along with other units then shooting in France, such as Rene Clement's La Bataille du Rail company) not only to complete their own work, but to release from captivity a grand cinematic tradition. French filmmaking had been closely censored by the Germans, and perhaps some of Beauty and the Beast's imagery of anxious incarceration and glorious release may have been an unconscious allegory for a national cinema turned loose from artistic and political bondage.
Throughout filming, Cocteau relied heavily both on justly famous major colleagues, and on nameless but patient technicians. Each of them struggled off the set with the difficulties of his own Liberation days, but Cocteau remembered them as unfailingly patient with their new director. Technical advisor Rene Clement and composer Georges Auric helped Cocteau's very personal vision see the light of day. But two coworkers in particular, production designer Christian Berard and cinematographer Henri Alekan, were essential to making Cocteau's dreamy, sensual, fragile world of the imagination visible. Berard's eerie designs for the inside of the Beast's domain, burlesqued in Disney's cartoon remake, have never been equaled as an uncanny setting for love. Hallways that seem to recede into infinity, mantle pieces composed of actual human faces with unspoken, tragic histories, sconces made of moving arms, beds that look like forest bowers for mad love... Cocteau wrote of one aspect of Berard's work: "His costumes, with their elegance, power, and sumptuous simplicity, play just as big a part as the dialogue. They are not merely decorations; they reinforce the slightest gesture, and the artists find them comfortable." And Berard's ability to conjure up the Low Country magic of Vermeer, Rembrandt, and De Hooch still makes the film an art historian's delight. Henri Alekan gave a delighted Cocteau camera tricks from cinema’s ancient history--reverse motion, fast motion, and flying effects out of the great turn-of-the-century French fabulist George Melies--yet made them seem daring and new. All of Alekan's images were deeply textured and beautifully lit; that he achieved these effects often through momentary improvisation and not days of planning each shot, still amazes. Upon seeing the first rushes, Cocteau said of Alekan's sumptuous camera work, "What's Alekan's work like? Like a piece of old silver which has been polished until it shines like new ... Alekan knows in advance the strangeness I'm after." As he finished the film, Cocteau regretted only one thing about a work he knew was turning into a masterpiece. "What a pity France cannot afford the luxury of color films," he wrote in the diary he kept throughout filming. Finally, the film was done. Out of appreciation, Cocteau elected to screen it first to the technicians at the Joinville studios. In most social situations, Cocteau seemed to glitter with irony, to breathe dry wit and knowing laughter. Yet, at that impromptu premiere on the evening of June 1, 1946, in front of his fellow professionals and a few selected guests, he was beside himself with fear. Asked to say a few words before the film, he was paralyzed and silent, and sat throughout the screening holding Marlene Dietrich's hand so tight he later wondered that he did not crush it. What he saw on the screen, though, sliced through both the chic cynicism of the veteran surrealist, and the stage fright of the tyro director. Now, he clutched for the right words: “The film unwound, revolved, sparkled inside of me, solitary, unfeeling, far-off as a heavenly body.”
Others have found Cocteau's great work of faith and imagination equally affecting; it has been, ever since, a favorite of film critics, film students, and the public, a completely unique visualization of one man's fantastic universe that somehow rings a bell on the heart of everyone who sees it. Beauty and the Beast began for Cocteau a career of unparalleled originality in the cinema. After the success of another of Cocteau's films, an envious fellow director, Henri George Clouzot, delivered an epitaph that could stand in for the entire oeuvre founded on Beauty and the Beast. “That film proves that there's no such thing as technique, but only invention."
— Donald Faulkner, NYS Writers Institute
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.