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Luminous, magical, deeply moving film; superb DVD
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.