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on March 12, 2003
Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946) is not only one of the greatest films I have seen - a perfect blend of poetic fantasy and psychological depth - it's also one of my all-time favorites. The restored version from the Criterion Collection is among the best DVDs I have seen, both for the breathtaking clarity of the image and sound, and for a wealth of supplemental materials, including several fascinating documentaries, essays in a lavish printed booklet, and Philip Glass's complete opera synched to the film on a separate audio track.
With each re-viewing of Beauty and the Beast, I see new layers of Cocteau's vision. As a child, I was enthralled by how real, and actually lived in, this fairy tale world seemed. And I was spellbound by the Beast, brought fully, both horribly and tenderly, to life by Jean Marais' riveting performance. I will never forget the Beast's death scene, when Marais expresses worlds of pain, love, and self-understanding solely through the eyes peering out of a feral, hair-covered face.
The film does not need today's digital special effects; it still works perfectly with its own low-tech but deeply resonant wonders. And it is a triumph of design. Cocteau worked closely with production "illustrator" Christian Bérard and cinematographer Henri Alekan to give the picture what he called "the soft gleam of hand-polished old silver." It is filled with simple but gorgeous - and unforgettable - tableaux, from a corridor of disembodied human arms grasping candelabra that burst into flame as you pass by, to Beauty gliding in slow motion through the enchanted castle. Then there is the indefinable magic of the scene at the manor with huge white sheets drying in the sun, creating silhouettes of striking power. (Cocteau's crew spent weeks searching everywhere for sheets without patches, an almost unheard of luxury in postwar France.)
Technically, and aesthetically, it is astonishing how Cocteau wrested so much visual interest from a film comprised almost entirely of medium shots. A close look reveals how dynamically, yet subtly, unbalanced most of the compositions are. We rarely see a subject head on, but rather from a slightly skewed angle. And during some of the most important moments, Cocteau foregrounds an unimportant object (a candlestick, a tree branch) to block our view, to make our imaginations fill in the obscured main details. Throughout he also makes evocative use of shadows, both where you would expect them, in the Beast's mysterious realm, and where you might not, in the merchant's strangely foreboding manor house. This tense visual quality meshes perfectly with the film's complex emotional nature.
On one level, Beauty and the Beast is a perfect, and largely faithful, realization of a great fairy tale, originally written in 1756 by French author Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont while she served as a governess in Scotland. But Cocteau's film exists on many other levels as well, which is why it continues to appeal as much to adults as children. There have been many interpretations, including symbolist, Jungian, Freudian, deconstructionist, and even gay readings (Cocteau is not only a preeminent author, poet, artist, playwright, and filmmaker of the 20th century, he is also a central gay icon). All of these views help reveal the many, and sometimes contradictory, layers of Cocteau's vision.
At its simplest and most direct, the film paints a moral lesson as easily understood by a child as by most adults: Who and what you are - your true nature - matters more than your appearance. We see this idea embodied, in troubling ways, by many of the human characters, including Beauty's two wicked sisters and, to a lesser extent, her wastrel brother Ludovic. But the most morally ambiguous character, and the one who gives the film considerable emotional depth, is Avenant. He is, of course, played by Jean Marais, who also performs the Beast and, at the end, Prince Ardent. Avenant is strikingly handsome, self-assured, and energetic, yet Marais also brings out his darker side, subtly in his attempted seductions of Beauty and overtly in his fatal greed at the end. What compounds Avenant's resonance for the film comes out in one of the final lines. Beauty answers Prince Ardent's question about whether she loved Avenant with a breathless, "Oh yes!" How, and why, could our heroine - who comes to see through the Beast's fearsome persona to the torn yet righteous man within - ever have been in love with someone like Avenant? That is yet another of the film's emotional mysteries, the ones which may appeal more to, and perhaps even unsettle, adult viewers.
One of the most fascinating, and visceral, comments on this film is musical. Composer Philip Glass (whose works include the operas Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and The Voyage, and film scores Koyaanisqatsi, Mishima, and The Hours) set Cocteau's screenplay to music which runs simultaneously with the picture on the DVD, as the composer intended. The film's original, magisterial score by Georges Auric is one of cinema's greatest; and Cocteau knew exactly when to use it - or silence - for maximum effect. But Glass uses his patented syncopated rhythms and repeated symmetrical sequences of chords to create a haunting alternate voice for the picture. Distinct from Auric, Glass's score reveals the sometimes dark and disturbing emotional subtext, rather than the fairy tale sense of wonder. Previously I had liked the opera as an audio recording; but when joined with the film I found it utterly compelling.
Beauty and the Beast is a film I look forward to reexperiencing for the rest of my life. It has a way of getting under your skin, even entering your dreams. The closer you look at it, the more mysterious, and spellbinding, it becomes.
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In this, his first feature film, director Jean Cocteau set a standard for filmmaking that not even he could surpass. A masterpiece of inventive, surreal imagery, this film captivates the viewer as few other films have. Haunting, lyrical, and enchanting, this film retells the story of an age old fairy tale classic, "Beauty and the Beast" by Jeanne Marie LePrince De Beaumont. The film is sheer poetry in motion.
This marvelous, exquisitely rendered adaptation centers around the core of the fairy tale. An impoverished merchant (Marcel Andre) comes across a most unusual chateau, deeply hidden in the forest, where he is provided with hospitality by an unseen host. Upon leaving, he happens to break off a rose from a rosebush in the garden of his reclusive host, in order to take it back to Beauty (Josette Day), the most beloved of his three daughters. This simple act calls forth his previously unseen host, The Beast (Jean Marais), who tells him that the theft of that which The Beast loves most will cost the merchant his life or the company of the one whom the merchant loves most, one of his daughters. Allowed to return home temporarily, the merchant tearfully recounts what happened to him, and Beauty surreptitiously goes in his place to the enchanted chateau upon a magical horse that seems to sparkle with fairy dust. It is there that she, too, meets The Beast. Alas, the path of true love does not run smoothly, and Beauty and The Beast, together, make that discovery.
Be prepared for a visual feast of dreamy black and white cinematography, as well as one of the most unusual sets ever to grace the silver screen. Living statuary, human candelabras, and tears that turn to diamonds are just some of the exquisite, surreal immagery that take the viewer's breath away. Superlative performances by Josette Day and Jean Marais, as well as an excellent supporting cast, make this, indeed, a film to remember! Filmed in 1946, time has not dimished the ability of this masterpiece to enchant and captivate the viewer. Bravo!
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VINE VOICEon March 29, 2005
I vascillated for a long time on picking up this disc. Its pricey and I asked myself, how often I would want to revisit this film, practically memorized by now, having viewed it countless times over the years.

Yet something drew me to this edition, and the verdict is definitely a positive one. The restored version is lovely-all the incredible contrasts of soft greys, silver and stark blacks have been gloriously brought back to life. This what they mean by "in glorious black and white!" There is a clarity and richness here that gives the viewer an opportunity to notice subtlties that were obscured by the scratchy old print that was used on the VHS version. Gone are the distracting audio pops and clicks and most of the visual scratches, allowing the viewer to more readily fall into the dreamy trance of this timeless film.

Cocteau was a poet and a visionary,and despite the technical limitations of film in the 1940's, he brought real magic to the screen, something that today's digital wizardry doesn't always deliver. This is a richly textured retelling of this famous fable, full of detail and nuance. It is decidely more Grimms than Disney, so I don't recommend showing it to small children. Charged with an undercurrent of eroticism and psychological symbols,it is really a fairy tale for adults.

The disc is packed with extras. I haven't yet checked them all out, but the "Screening at the Majestic' is a nice documentary. I particularly enjoyed seeing Jean Marais, still very much alive and kicking, reminiscing at the very house that was used as the set for Beauty's family home. I started watching the film with the alternative Phillip Glass opera soundtrack and was amazed to find that the opera vocals are the exact original dialogue, and even more astounding, somehow he was able to sync the vocals precisely with the actors performance. Quite a feat for any composer. It's a bit eerie at first, but a great bonus that I will sit through and absorb someday. I'm looking forward to seeing the Alekan interview as well.

Criterion generously fills the accompanying booklet with more gems; a translation of the original fable by Mme.le Prince de Beaumont is in there as well as a couple of fascinating essays, including Cocteau's own thoughts as to the meaning of his film.

While all the extras are a great addition, this version is worth the price of admission just by virtue of the film itself. This is a complex allegorical fairytale, filled with symbols and dream imagery. And like all great fairy tales (and dreams) it is filled with ambiguities and contradictions. Perhaps this is why we can come back to it again and again over the years,finding something new in it each time. Every time the ending comes I am confused and beguiled. It always leaves me with a sense of wonder, curiosity and unanswered questions.

What more could you want from a movie?
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on September 13, 2006
Although I have owned the Cocteau "Beauty and the Beast" on tape for a number of years, I was hesitant to buy the Criterion Collection restored version on DVD because I had read that there was a new sound track: an opera by Philip Glass. What was not clear to me was that the new sound track is only one of the options; another is the original sound track, much cleaner than on the tape version.

Many DVDs of restored classics include examples of the restoration; this one doesn't. I played the Criterion DVD, then my VHS version, and I was amazed at the difference; the DVD makes the film look as if it were made yesterday; the tape version has all the scratches, pops, and muffled dialogue that are more or less typical of tapes made from deteriorated films. The subtitles on the DVD are easier to read than the ones on the tape (the DVD uses a different type font), there are two different commentaries included among the options, and the Philip Glass opera version is there as well. There is a print bonus as well: a booklet that includes the text of the original fairy tale, Cocteau's comments on filming it, and a critic's comments on the film.

The opening credits alone are worth the price of the DVD: Cocteau himself, writing on a blackboard (the tape version only displays text against a background).
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on June 7, 2002
"Criterion has ceased manufacturing our original edition of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (spine #6) to make room for a new edition, scheduled for release later this year. The new BEAUTY AND THE BEAST will feature a new transfer, a new spine number, and additional new supplemental features . It will be preceded by a theatrical release of newly restored prints in the spring. It's not technically going out of print, but the original edition will be replaced." - Jon Mulvaney / Criterion Co.
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Jean Cocteau was the lead artistic director in French cinema. This is a revered, beloved film of his. It is a classic retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale yet also is surreal with Dali-like sets and props and an Art Deco look and feel to it. Cocteau cast his own long time lover, Jean Marais, as the beast. Marais is a good looking man but, ironically, he is so great as the beast that it is a bit disappointing when he becomes his classically handsome self at the film's end.

The plot is that La Belle's (Beauty's) father steals a rose from La Bête (the Beast) and he must surrender his daughter to La Bête in order to remain alive. Belle moves into the La Bête's exquisite Art Deco like mansion with all its perfect accoutrements and gardens. She doesn't realize it but it is her love that can restore La Bête from his present form to his former Prince Charming handsomeness.

Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont wrote the original fairy tale and Jean Cocteau wrote the screenplay adaptation with all of its artistic, visual and surreal influences.

Visit my blog with link given on my profile page here or use this phonetically given URL (livingasseniors dot blogspot dot com). Friday's entry will always be weekend entertainment recs from my 5 star Amazon reviews in film, tv, books and music. These are very heavy on buried treasures and hidden gems. My blogspot is published on Monday, Wednesday & Friday.
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VINE VOICEon March 10, 2003
The Criterion Collection has released its second DVD version of Cocteau's masterpiece, this time featuring the extensive 1995 Luxembourg restoration done for French cinema's centennial. The black-and-white film, mono, in French, comes in its original aspect ratio of 1:33.1. The restoration -- detailed on the DVD -- removed most of the scratches and dropouts that plagued the original nitrate negative. While viewers will marvel at the quantum leap in video integrity and continuity, owners of the 1998 Criterion DVD may want to hang on to their discs. Missing in action from the 2003 version -- which appears a bit flat after all that scrubbing -- are the dramatic contrasts of the previous restoration, done in the United States. (The older DVD presentation bears major scratches throughout -- pick your poison.)
Regardless, the new "Beast" DVD comes with significant upgrades over previous U.S. video versions. The notoriously bad audio loses almost all of its persistent scratchiness and lack of dynamics -- giving the "Beast" back his roar. The English subtitles benefit from much-needed care in translation and presentation.
Another notable change is the resurrection of Cocteau's original opening -- the live-action titles in which the stars' names are hastily written on a blackboard and the director's handwritten message to the audience.
Modern-day composer Philip Glass' "Beauty and the Beast" opera -- usually performed live as Cocteau's movie plays as a silent film -- comes on an optional audio track, in Dolby Digital 5.1. There's an undeniable thrill in having "Beast" unspool as Glass' hypnotic music swirls around the room, but the replacement of the original actors' dialogue with opera singers' wailing quickly wears thin. The opera comes with its own set of subtitles.
The new DVD carries over the 1991 commentary by film historian Arthur Knight that appeared on the original Voyager laserdisc and on the 1998 DVD. The talk is informative, but one gets the feeling Knight would rather be talking about the director's first film, the avant-garde "Blood of a Poet" (1933). Bringing a fresh second opinion to the disc is cultural historian Christopher Frayling, whose talk is as good as it gets in academic film commentary. (Sir Christopher's track was recorded in 2001 for the British Film Institute.) Frayling greatly admirers Cocteau's film but doesn't hesitate to point out weaknesses. Unlike Knight, Frayling stays on topic, moving scene-to-scene with the film but never wasting time with the obvious.
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on February 7, 2003
Well...I almost hate to write this, because there's no doubt that Criterion is the platinum standard in DVD. I just watched a review copy of the "restored" Beauty And The Beast and it's not as "beauty"-ful as the original Criterion edition that came out a few years ago. The film does look pristine, but the depth of the original is missing. It almost looks too squeaky clean and...well, digital. Make no mistake, you'll be completely entrhalled by this DVD, but if you can get your hands on the other Criterion edition, do it. You'll be even more enchanted.
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on February 24, 2004
Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST will leave an impression on those who are about to see it for the first time. Anyone who has seen it already will be able to recount multiple favorite images and delight in expounding upon them. Film in the hands of some people seems to become more malleable. Cocteau is one such weaver of images whose fantasy world is at the same time childlike and foreboding - innocent as a puppet theatre ,then dark as sin.
The film mixes fantasy and reality by presenting time spent in the ordinary world in straightforward, unambiguous scenes and juxtaposing these with theatre-like sequences that represent the parallel world of enchantment. Surreal set pieces, mists and blackness define the borders of the Beasts domain.
From the Beasts smoking hands after the kill to the living arm sconces and the couples flight in the end, simple effects seem to gain impact from the bare uncomplicated nature of them thrust out into view like magic tricks.
Composed like paintings the rich imagery conspires with stellar black and white photography
to produce a seeming mid range of silver smoke and shimmering highlights.
Anyone into or discovering film should acquaint themselves with this highly original sence of cinema that has lured admierers for almost six decades.
This adaptation of a fairytale will be best understood by adults but should be shared with children as well.
Small children will be uneasy in the presence of the Beast who looks a far cry from a cartoon character. Also, someone older will have to read the subtitles to them but in a darkened room that might make it even more effective as a fairy tale experience.
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Jean Cocteau's elegant vision in "La Belle et la Bete" is an absolute treat. Marie Leprince de Beaumont's dark fairy tale is turned into a film of erotic obsession. With its inventive and stylized images, this sensual film is not really for the kids. But some day they will come to appreciate Cocteau's film as much as they love the Disney version. Josette Day is Beauty, while Jean Marais plays not only the Beast, but Avenant and the Prince as well. However, the costumes, make-up and sets are what you will remember long after you have seen this 1946 film for the first time. One of the most beautiful black and white films ever made, with lush cimenatography by Henri Alekan. Do not wait until your kids are old enough to watch this one before you see it for yourself.
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