Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Beauty And The Beast" (1946)

Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty And The Beast” came out in 1946, just a year after the end of World War II, two years after the French Liberation and fourteen years after his first feature film, “The Blood Of A Poet”. Being a filmmaker was but one of the many talents of this complete artist. Cocteau was a poet, a playwright, a painter, a sculptor, a screenwriter, a novelist, a director of photography, a critic, an actor, a composer, an editor, a costume designer, an illustrator and a ballet creator as well as a film director.

As the title of his first feature film might indicate, Cocteau preferred to think of himself as a poet above all other things, and his adaptation of “Beauty And The Beast” makes it easy to see why. Modern viewers more familiar with the also-masterful Disney version might find themselves disconcerted by its lack of structure and character development. Cocteau is telling a fairytale, in every way. He doesn’t try and make it more sophisticated. It’s a fairytale and it’s told as such. This is made clear before the film even starts, as an opening crawl asks the audience to place themselves in the mindset of children, who accept the content of fairytales unquestioningly and unconditionally, their minds unshackled by logic or judgment.

Thus, like in fairytales, most characters are fairly archetypal without descending into caricature (Baz Luhrmann, I’m looking at you). Belle (Josette Day) is kind, honest, loving and compassionate. Her sisters, like Cinderella’s, are petty, selfish, arrogant and shallow even when reduced to poverty. Her brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair) is a well-meaning self-described scoundrel. This leaves the film’s two most complex characters and, not coincidentally, they are both played by Cocteau’s lover and muse Jean Marais: The Beast and Avenant.


Avenant is a character that did not appear in Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s original fairytale. He appears as Ludovic’s best friend and, most importantly, Belle’s suitor. A proud, handsome blond Adonis, Avenant attempts to woo Belle only to be politely turned down. She tells him she does not love him and is in any case too devoted to her father to marry. Avenant responds by forcibly trying to kiss her, stopped by Ludovic’s interference. They fight but still they remain friends. As the family’s merchant father is ruined by the loss of his fortune, Avenant convinces Ludovic to sign a contract with a moneylender enabling him to repossess their home and furniture to pay off his debts. This reduces the family to poverty.

Modern audiences will quickly recognize Avenant as the precursor to the Disney film’s Gaston. Like Gaston, he represents the Beast’s opposite number: Whereas the Beast is ugly, considerate and unselfish, Avenant is handsome, rude and brutish.

Yet he is not the monster Gaston turns out to be. When Belle returns for a week to take care of her ailing father and reveals the secret trinkets the Beast has entrusted her with, Avenant, Ludovic and the sisters concoct a plan to steal them, find the Beast’s castle and kill him. Whereas the sisters are motivated by spite, jealousy and envy, Avenant’s motives are nobler: he believes the Beast is keeping Belle under an evil spell and that he can use his treasure to pay off her father’s debts.

It makes sense from his point of view. If a woman you loved came back after spending a long time as the captive of a beast who had threatened to kill her father for picking his rose, claimed that he treated her well and was wearing magic jewelry, wouldn’t you assume her to be either under an evil spell or suffering from Stockholm Syndrome?

Avenant, while not an especially nice man, is not evil. But his love for Belle has driven him to attempt murder and burglary – the former crime being futile, since the Beast was dying of a broken heart until Belle’s loving tears resurrected him. Just at that moment, Avenant is punished by an arrow throw by the animated statue of Diane and turned into a Beast just as the Beast is resurrected with Avenant’s handsome traits. It is then that Belle finally admits that she did love him.

This is summed up by the ex-Beast, who observes that love can turn a man into a beast just as easily as it can turn a beast into a man. Specifically, the love that Avenant felt for Belle that she never openly returned to him turned him into a Beast, whereas the love that the Beast felt for Belle and that she reciprocated in his dying moments turned him back into a man. An interesting distinction that raises a few questions: Could Belle be held partially responsible for Avenant’s fate due to her refusal to admit her feelings for him, out of love for her father? If so, this would give an additional twist on the meaning of “love can turn a man into a Beast”. Not only did Avenant’s unrequited love for Belle turn him into a Beast, but so did Belle’s love for her father.

I am not highly versed in psychology, but this Oedipus-like quadrangle is well-suited to Cocteau’s oneiric style. Cocteau’s first film, “The Blood Of A Poet”, was a surrealist work of art about a young artists’ sexual insecurities. Sexual insecurity is arguably even more present in “Beauty And The Beast”, in the shape of the Beast.

Viewers like me who grew up with the Disney film will remember that film’s Beast being its protagonist in the classical sense as he is the one who undergoes a journey of transformation: Turned into a Beast as punishment for his arrogance and selfishness, he grows from self-loathing volatile brute to gentleman after Belle teaches him to control his temper.

In this film, the Beast’s demeanor is much more collected. He does not raise his voice often and generally behaves like a gracious, polite host. The beastly nature of his character is not so much temperamental as it is sexual. This is represented in several different ways:

-          His vehement rejection when she looks at him in the eyes after he carries her unconscious body into her bedroom and she wakes up. Was he tempted to rape her? Did her awakening and look in his eyes snap him out of it?

-          The ambiguous look on Belle’s face during their first nightly meeting, when he appears behind her. Is that fear, arousal, or a bit of both? Also, look how she handles that knife.

-          The scene in which she observes him from a hiding place as he paces the corridors, gazing at his smoking hands. Whenever he has killed or appears to feel a strong emotion, the Beast’s hands or back smoke as if they were on fire.

-          A few minutes later, he goes into her bedroom and voyeuristically uses the magic mirror to see where she is hiding. She then goes into her bedroom and orders him to get out, he reacts with embarrassment and shame, like a boy caught masturbating by his mother.

He can only appear to her later in the night, supposedly because his beastly impulses are more controlled than during the day. In one scene, an early stroll in the late afternoon is briefly interrupted when the Beast senses a doe nearby and is almost overcome with the urge to hunt it.

The Beast is mysterious and fascinating because of what he represents. We never find out exactly why or how he was cursed, or even if he was cursed in the first place. For all we know, he could have been born that way. He is an embodiment of Man’s innate compulsions, resisting sexual temptation and violent urges.

None of this, of course, is explicitly defined as such. The film’s surface is that of a fairytale, and its sexual undercurrents can easily slip through the minds of children. But it is there, in the subconscious. And what better way to express the subconscious than through dreams? This is where the extraordinary sets and special effects come into play: The Beast’s castle serves as a refuge for repressed desires and feelings. Visitors are constantly surrounded by protruding arms, silently guiding them through dark corridors and luxurious meals, protruding out of walls and tables. The statues silently observe them, like voyeurs, watching their every move.

The darkness created by scarce lighting accentuates a mixture of uneasiness and fascination, particularly in the dining room and hall corridor. The backgrounds seem barely existent, the furniture and candle-bearing arms coming out of seeming nothingness. It mixes both intimacy and claustrophobia; you feel both alone and surrounded, attracted and repulsed, much as Belle feels towards the Beast.

A “Beauty And The Beast” review would be incomplete without mentioning Jean Marais’s performance as the triple role of Avenant, the Beast and the ex-Beast. It is a complicated and fascinating one. As Avenant, Marais is as masculine and brash as one would expect a swashbuckling hero to be, arrogant but not entirely devoid of charm. The charm is merely buried by the arrogance. As the Beast, that charm is present in his high raspy voice, creepy yet oddly seductive. His eyes do the rest of the work, enhanced rather than burdened by an astonishing makeup that reportedly took 5 hours a day and makes him look like a cross between a lion and a bear. So compelling is he that, when turned into a human, he becomes comparatively bland and uninteresting even compared to Avenant. Reportedly, the final transformation prompted Greta Garbo (or Marlene Dietrich according to Roger Ebert) to shout out "Give me back my Beast!" during the American premiere of the film.

Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty And The Beast” is a beautiful work of art not only because of its timeless visual magnificence but because it visually conveys the source material’s subconscious meaning with subtlety, attention and intelligence without straying from the story.

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