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Out of the extravagant variety of Jean Cocteau’s work—the paintings and drawings, the poems, the plays and novels and memoirs, the opera librettos and ballet scenarios—it is likely his films that will have the most enduring influence, and among those, Beauty and the Beast (1946) will have the most pervasive effect. When it comes to “fairy-tale movies”—if such a genre exists as something other than a profit center for the Disney corporation—there is Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and then there is everything else. It is a safe bet that no one who surrenders to it at an impressionable age ever quite escapes the distinct and disturbing enchantments it sets in motion.
It is also perhaps the most self-effacing of Cocteau’s works. His flamboyance and wit are placed at the service of the old folkloric tale by Mme Leprince de Beaumont; even as he adds his characteristic complications to the tale—giving the Beast a thoroughly earthly and unenchanted doppelgänger, Avenant, and adding a mythic dimension by means of a secret temple to Diana—he allows the pure force of the narrative to assert itself, as if he were content for once to figure as a kind of medieval artisan. An artisan among artisans: the film is virtually a showcase for the best in French production design (Christian Bérard), music (Georges Auric), cinematography (Henri Alekan), and costuming (Marcel Escoffier). Yet the net effect is, if anything, austere rather than lush, a tribute to Cocteau’s unerring sense that here the tale, with its mysterious imperatives, is everything.
The film is inescapably tied up with the war during which it was planned. Shooting began four months after the German surrender. The deprivations of the period account for the fact that it was not filmed in color, as Cocteau had wished—hard as it is to imagine the movie apart from Alekan’s black-and-white palette, with its careful distinction between a deceptively sunny ordinary reality and the Beast’s domain of night. This harshness in the background is perceptible in other ways as well. The storybook setting of a seventeenth-century farmhouse, into which we are ushered with the phrase “once upon a time,” is revealed within a few moments as a place of vanity and venality, cowardice and petty-minded squabbling, slaps and insults. It is a fallen world, in which Belle (Josette Day) seems to withdraw into a hermetic suffering amid the meanness of her elder sisters, the feckless opportunism of her brother, the moral weakness of her father, and the overtures of Jean Marais’ handsome and empty Avenant. The hellishness of this pictorially elegant but resolutely unmagical reality, further amplified by the implied rapacity of encircling creditors and moneylenders, makes it an unlikely setting for any conceivable “happy ever after.”
By establishing how truly oppressive is the world that Belle and her father inhabit, Cocteau makes all the more uncanny the discovery, by the harried merchant, of a passageway out of it, into the Beast’s realm. It is like the breaching of a seam, and we are carried through every part of the process: through the misty forest and up a deserted staircase, through the great door and, in the most otherworldly of camera movements, down the hall of human arms extending candelabra whose flames spontaneously flare up—a rite of initiation that loses none of its power from learning that it was achieved by filming the action backward, and that it was shot not by Cocteau but by his assistant, René Clément. You can play it back time and again without exhausting the sense of shock at having passed through some ordinary, invisible portal.
If this is magic, it is a shaggy, palpable sort of magic. As a true poet—whether writing verse or otherwise—Cocteau had a poet’s hard-earned mistrust of the merely atmospheric, decorative vagueness misnamed “poetic”: “My method,” he wrote at the outset of his journal of the shooting of Beauty and the Beast, “is simple: not to aim at poetry. That must come of its own accord. The mere whispered mention of its name frightens it away.” The result, of course, was a film that, as much as any other, has been praised as lyrical, almost unbearable in its ethereal gorgeousness, a triumph of the imagination—even when it may just as accurately be described as tough-minded, down-to-earth, ferociously unsentimental. If Cocteau’s film continues to breathe, as few have done, the air of the fantastic, it is because we sense at each moment that we are caught up in a process governed by laws, laws that may be difficult to explain or even articulate but that express themselves by the most concrete means: “Fantasy has its own laws, which are like those of perspective. You may not bring what is distant into the foreground nor render fuzzily what is near.” Like a ritual performed in order to produce results, not just to make the participants feel good, Beauty and the Beast moves through its phases undistracted by anything, focused only on the business at hand.
Any prettiness is incidental, mere drapery over darker and more archaic imperatives. The underlying structure is nearly pitiless, an intricately intermeshing machinery loaded with hidden traps. Cocteau has a logician’s respect for the orders of ritual and the cruel demands of ritual sacrifice. His “magic” has, from certain angles, the paranoid efficiency of a cosmic prison house in which miracles exist but only at a rigorously exacted price. The weightless happiness that is the perennial promise of both fairy tales and movies is to be attained at a cost measured out frame by frame, in a story more full of suffering than of wish fulfillment—and in which, indeed, the promise of ecstasy embraced in the moment of final metamorphosis quickly threatens to become a more banal contentment. Even as Belle and her prince (the Beast transformed into the double of the unreliable Avenant) soar into the sky, she seems already to realize that this is not exactly what she wanted. The instant reaction attributed to Greta Garbo captures perfectly the strange disappointment of the “happy” ending: “Give me back my Beast!”
In Beauty and the Beast, as previously in The Blood of a Poet (1930) and later in Orpheus (1950), Cocteau was able to realize the fantastic not as an escape from the real but as an extension of it, as its reverse side. He has no interest in Neverlands or Wonderlands. He approaches the paraphernalia of the fairy tale—those enchanted mirrors, keys, gloves—with a technician’s dispassion, no more taken aback by their existence than by the existence of trees or streams or horses or rose gardens, but endlessly curious about how they function. For Cocteau, “movie magic” is not a glib catchphrase. As a science of transformation, cinema becomes true alchemy. The mirror in The Blood of a Poet that becomes a splashing pool as one passes through it is not an illusion but an achieved reality; in Orpheus, the comings and goings between the realms of the living and the dead are rendered in a deadpan spirit of documentary observation. If magic requires the use of specialized equipment, for Cocteau that equipment includes the whole somnambulistic repertoire of the movies’ night side, from Meliès on out. When in watching Beauty and the Beast we think at one moment or another of Nosferatu or Metropolis or Dracula or King Kong, it is not with the sense that they have been imitated or self-consciously alluded to but as if their effective elements have been incorporated wholesale, as needed, by the resident shaman.
The magic is sexual throughout—a fantastic, but not in the least morbid or phantasmal, sex magic. What could be more direct and free of coyness than the image of the Beast drinking water from Belle’s hands, although it is so chaste that no censor could have ever assailed it? It is matched by the tactile immediacy of the moment when the grieving Beast presses his furry face against the fur coverlet of Belle’s empty bed. The irresistible effect of everything that happens after Belle enters the castle is tied to the pair’s aura of forbidden intimacy: her slow-motion advance into the Beast’s great hall, as she moves past the billowing white curtains and Auric’s music bursts out in choral ululations; her passage through the talking door, into the privacies of mirror and bed; the night wanderings in which she spies on the Beast in the aftermath of his nocturnal slaughters, while he stares in horror at his smoking hands.
The extraordinarily beautiful shot in which we see the Beast from behind, his head haloed in light, as he ascends the stairs with Belle in his arms, while on the other side of the screen, light streams through dungeonlike grillwork, conjures with gothic intensity the imminence of a sexual fantasy fulfilled, in a setting made for such fulfillment—a bedroom hidden within a castle hidden within a forest—and with Beauty delivered defenseless into the embrace of a Beast manifestly able to sweep away all resistance. The erotic force of the episode that follows is outdone only by the even greater emotional force of the restraint that stops him in his tracks and sends him rushing out of the room, saying, “You mustn’t look into my eyes.”
It is, of course, his eyes that we look at, glistening from within the multilayered makeup that cost Marais five hours of application each day, makeup so expressive that Marais’ real face seems a blank by comparison. We cannot shake the certainty that an actual creature has been introduced into the world, and the sorrow provoked by his disappearance recurs anew on each viewing. I doubt whether so solitary and tragic a figure has ever been so fully realized in movies before or since, and realized here not only through Hagop Arakelian’s makeup skills and Marais’ performance but through the universe created to form a context around him, made out of Cocteau’s words, Auric’s music, Alekan’s images.
As for Belle, she is, finally, almost as much of a cipher as the statue of Diana that breaks the spell by shooting an arrow into the rascally Avenant. When the Beast tells her, “You are the only master here,” he underscores the cruelty at the heart of Cocteau’s fable. Beauty is indeed the master of all the craftsmanlike skills brought to their highest pitch to realize this singular vision: a Beauty who may offer love or capriciously withhold it, a Beauty who wants only a rose—even if that rose may threaten death to anyone who gives it to her—a Beauty who may, after all, know herself least well and therefore never fully grasp her own all-determining power. Only in the mirror world of art can Beauty and Beast truly cohabit. And even for Cocteau, master of such a range of arts, what art but cinema—the magic mirror itself—could ever realize that cohabitation so persuasively?
Geoffrey O’Brien’s books include Sonata for Jukebox, Castaways of the Image Planet, The Browser’s Ecstasy, The Phantom Empire, and The Fall of the House of Walworth. He is editor in chief of the Library of America.