• Once Upon a Time—French Poet Explains His Filming of Fairy Tale

    By Jean Cocteau

    The poet Paul Eluard says that to understand my film version of Beauty and the Beast, you must love your dog more than your car. Ordinarily, I would settle for that. However, with so much being written about the film that is entirely false to my intentions, I have decided that I must explain myself just a little.

    The French film industry is now going through a curious phase. In the past, our producers found that wit and poetry could be made to pay. Now with the field of distribution constantly decreasing, with production costs increasing, and with theatre admission rates fixed by the government at a non-realistic low level, the business men of the cinema have gradually become patrons of the arts—ill-tempered ones, as you can imagine.

    At the present moment, a film that goes against average taste gets few bookings in France, and outside of some ambitious pictures undertaken to maintain prestige, production is almost at a standstill and the studios deserted. A poet engaged in film work must face another great difficulty: the immediate results demanded of a motion picture. A book can wait. A play that has flopped may be revived. A film must please at once, and we therefore have to devise ways to please and displease at the same time. There has never yet been an instance of something new not baffling the esthetes, the critics and the public, lazily accepting familiar formulas. The least challenge is apt to awaken a brutal and unpleasant response.

    The only hope for a film is that the public, less blind and less deaf than our judges, I should say more childlike and more open to persuasion, may disobey the veto of the with Beauty and the Beast, see simply and lovingly what blinkers hide from the enthroned intelligentsia.

    In short, when I decided to make a film that would be a fairy tale, and when I chose the one that is the least fairy-like—which is to say the one that would need to make the least use of modern cinema techniques—I of course knew that I was going pontiffs and, as has been the case against the grain, against the tide, against the tide. Once more, I was in opposition to current fashion.

    To realism, I would oppose the simplified, formalized behavior of characters out of Molière (at the beginning of the film). To fairyland as people usually see it, I would bring a kind of realism to banish the vague and misty nonsense now so completely outworn. My story would concern itself mainly with the unconscious obstinacy with which women pursue the same type of man, and expose the naiveté of the old fairy tales that would have us believe that this type reaches its ideal in conventional good looks. My aim would be to make the Beast so human, so sympathetic, so superior to men, that his transformation into Prince Charming would come as a terrible blow to Beauty, condemning her to a humdrum marriage and a future that I summed up in that last sentence of all fairy tales: “And they had many children.”

    I was therefore obliged to deceive both the public and Beauty herself. Slyly, and with much effort, I persuaded my cameraman Alekan to shoot Jean Marais, as the Prince in as saccharine a style as possible. The trick worked. When the picture was released, letters poured in from matrons, teen-age girls and children, complaining to me and Marais about the transformation. They mourned the disappearance of the Beast—the same Beast who terrified them so at the time when Madame Leprince de Beaumont wrote the tale.

    When Madame de Beaumont published Beauty and the Beast, she was an impoverished teacher in England, and I suppose that the story is of Scotch origin. Anglo-Saxons manage the horror story, the weird tale, better than anybody else. In fact, in England one still hears tales of lords, the eldest sons of noble families, heirs to the title, hidden away in barred rooms of old castles.

    There are three reasons why I have high hopes that Americans will readily grasp my intention. First, America is the home of Edgar Allen Poe, secret societies, mystics, ghosts, and a wonderful lyricism in the very streets. Second, childhood remains longer within the soul than it does here in France, where we try to suppress it as a weakness. Third, the America that now influences French literature is already ancient history for you, and the American is looking forward to something other than what astonishes us but no longer astonishes him.

    Here, roughly sketched, I have tried to give you something of what led me into an experience that I shall not repeat, because true experience must be unique. I can only compare it once again to the casting forth of a seed, which falls on favorable or unfavorable ground, blowing where it will.


    From the original 1940s press book for the U.S. premiere of Beauty and the Beast.

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