16 June 2008

TSPDT #190: LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE

L'enfance croit ce qu'on lui raconte et ne le met pas en doute. Elle croit qu'une rose qu'on cueille peut attirer des drames dans une famille. Elle croit que les mans d'une bête humaine qui tue se mettent à fumer et que cette bê on a honte lorsqu'une jeune fille habite sa maison. Elle croit mille autres choses bien naïves.

C'est un peu de cette naïveté que je vous demande et, pour nous porter chance à tous, laissez moi vous dire quatre mots magiques, véritable "Sésame ouvre tois" de l'enfance:

Il était une fois.....


-Jean Cocteau*
The problem with being the last person on Earth to see a film is that everything you could possibly say about it has already been said. But here I am, about to waste your time and mine on yet another appreciation of Jean Cocteau's 1946 sophomore feature, La belle et la bête [Beauty and the Beast], neither the first nor most famous adaptation of Mme. Leprince de Beaumont's classic fairy tale, but usually held to be the most definitive.

It's impossible to imagine anybody over the age of three or four who doesn't know the essentials of the story: Belle (Josette Day) is the youngest child of a destitute merchant (Marcel André), with one brother, Ludovic (Michel Auclair) and two indescribably vain sisters, Félicie (Mila Parély) and Adélaïde (Nane Germon). One day, as the merchant returns from his latest failed venture, he becomes lost in a wood, and stumbles into the courtyard of a forbidding castle. There he is waited upon by invisible servants and treated like an honored guest; however, as he departs the castle, he plucks a rose for Belle, angering the castle's owner: a terrifying half-man, half-animal (Jean Marais). The beast allows the merchant to leave only if he will send one of his children to take his place, or return to his own death; though he intends only to say goodbye to his family, Belle sneaks out in the night and arrives at the beast's castle, where he treats her like a queen, and every night asks her one question: "Will you be my wife?"

To my uncertain knowledge, there has never been a movie fairy tale handled quite the way that Cocteau directed La belle et la bête. Iconic images that rank among the most beautifully strange in the history of the art form - such as the long tracking shot of disembodied arms poking out of walls, holding candelabras that flare into existence as the merchant walks by - jams against what the director referred to in the US press book as "a kind of realism to banish the vague and misty nonsense now so completely outworn." After spending the first third of the film setting up the story in precise detail, Cocteau spends the last third flitting about from one notion to another, disregarding narrative cohesion almost completely. Then there is the famous matter of the ending, in which the beast is transformed into the handsome prince, to live happily ever after; except that Cocteau deliberately shot Marais-the-prince in the most banal way he could think of, focusing our attention on how bland the romantic lead looks after an hour of that most expressive, detailed, altogether marvelous beast mask (and not coincidentally, how much he looks like the boring lover that Belle spurned early in the film - Avenant, also played by Marais). The result is that nobody has ever failed to be disappointed by the "happy" transformation, leading to the famous & surely apocryphal story in which either Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo shouted at the film's premiere, "What have you done with my Beast?" A reaction shared by Belle herself, who takes some five minutes to get over her obvious shock and disappointment at the change.

In short: we've got ourselves a film here that kicks around our expectations like a tin can, whatever Cocteau's promise that this is going to be a film that we shall love as a naïve child would. Yes, La belle et la bête is a gentle, innocent fairy tale movie at times - and at times it is startling just how subversive the thing can be. Right from the film's opening shot - the AD calling out a slate right before the director, thinking better of himself, calls "cut" (whereupon he presents us with the statement of principles quoted up top) - it's obvious that this isn't going to be just a simple assortment of fantastic marvels.

The movie was shot almost as soon as the Germans left France, meaning that Cocteau had to scrounge together a patchwork of visually incompatible films stocks, and resulting in sets that were often put together for whatever the filmmakers could slap together on a moment's notice. The results sometimes look cheap, like plywood painted black meant to stand in for the hallways of a gloomy castle; sometimes, though, the shortcuts give the film an amazing amount of texture, like very few others before or since. La belle et la bête has an extremely physical mise en scène, sometimes grubby and sometimes hallucinatory, and sometimes both of those things in the same shot (when men in charcoal grey paint mimic statues, they look like men in paint - but they look damn uncanny at the same time). Nothing is more physical, dirtier, or more dreamy than the beast himself, Marais (at the time, Cocteau's lover) giving the performance of his career, if not the performance of all French cinema in the 1940s, underneath a layer of animal fur covering his whole body. I shall run the risk of hyperbole, and claim that the beast mask is the single greatest make-up effect of all time - if not necessarily the most strictly realistic, surely the most magnificent in effect, frightening us and seducing us in one breath, begging to be touched as much as anything in any film ever has been.

It does well to remember that Cocteau was a poet first, a filmmaker second (his previous film, The Blood of a Poet, had come out 16 years earlier), and entertaining the audience, though something he knew he was "supposed" to do, was not as important to his art as shaking the audience out of the normal, surprising and even disturbing them as much as possible (though compared to Blood, Belle is a model of journeyman studio work). Not that he was an avant-garde creator of inscrutably pretentious art; he just wanted to make the audience feel things in a powerful way, and that means we must be pulled out of comfort zone. Six decades later, it's true that a bit of the film's impact has been diluted by its significant influence both within its genre and without; but the original is still a special thing, a beautiful hallucination that doesn't make sense next to other, more conventional films, but is perfect in relationship to itself, viewed without preconception or cynicism. That, perhaps, is what Cocteau meant when he begged that we approach the film as a child.

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