The Dangerous Outside World
Film essay by: Witney Seibold
Most films one sees in theaters take place in what audiences assume to be “the real world.” Whatever the quality of the film – however hackneyed the situations or derivative the characters – the audience can often take for granted that the story is all derived from a familiar place where humans exist, the governments are still in place, and affairs are chugging away at their normal pace. Even our recent genre films – ones that take place on distant planets or in vaguely medieval otherworlds – tend to slant toward a more “realist” version of melodrama.
Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film “Beauty and the Beast” alludes to the real world, but clearly takes place in a heightened version of reality.
I have written – rather extensively – on Cocteau’s Orphic trilogy in a previous essay, and in it, I pointed out that Cocteau’s film universe is less about conventional drama, and closer to the beautiful interpretations of reality held in the realms of poetry or opera. He doesn’t make “movies” about “characters” going through “story arcs.” He makes poems, meditations, and interpretations of human behavior based on his own dark desires, artistic doubts, and his own self-imposed aesthetic responsibility.
And while we may all know the story of Beauty and the Beast from our childhoods, Cocteau is giving us something more dazzling than a retelling of an old fable. He is giving us an entire parallel world in which the proceedings – magical horses, castles ensconced with living frescoes, claws that smoke when they kill – can seem… not plausible, but completely natural. Cocteau makes our dream images of Beauty and the Beast manifest. He manages to synthesize and present raw imagination. Rather than staying with familiar things, he keeps us a little off-balance by giving us the world on the outside.
But, mind you, without straying from the tentpoles of the old story that we adore.
That old black magic: Belle (Josette Day), and her two sisters Félicie (Mila Parély) and Adélaïde (Nane Germon), and rakish brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair), live in crumbling comfort with their aging father (Marcel André). Félicie and Adélaïde are cruel and shrewish. Ludovic is indifferent and is easily pushed around by his friend Avenant (Jean Marais, Cocteau’s longtime lover). Belle is the servant of the family, and gracefully accepts any and all tasks.
Belle’s father must leave town for a spell, and asks his daughters what gifts they would like. The sisters ask for extravagant trinkets. Belle asks for a single rose. On returning from his trip, the father gets lost in the woods, and stumbles upon an overgrown and seemingly abandoned castle. He enters. The doors all seem to open and close of their own volition. Human arms extend from the walls, lighting the way with candelabras. The candles light on their own. Living human faces peer out from the architecture. He eats and drinks his fill.
He is then confronted by the master of this castle, and its only inhabitant: a horrible beast man (Marais). He insists that he only be called Beast. The Beast is incensed at the old man’s imposition, and will only spare his life if he sends one of his daughters in his stead.
Belle goes in his place, on the back of a magical horse. The Beast instinctively knows she is good, as only a good person would choose to martyr herself to save her innocent father. The Beast makes a comfortable home for Belle, feeding her rich meals and dressing her in fancy clothes. Every night at dinner, the Beast is going to ask for her hand in marriage. Every night she will refuse.
The Beast is indeed a sensitive soul, but he is by no means a cute or cuddly monster. He never smiles, and can only address people brusquely. Indeed, his beastliness drives him to periodically kill and eat raw flesh. He laps up water from a pond like a dog. Deep in his eyes, we can see the torment and the bestial nature of his soul. Whenever he kills, smoke rises from his claws.
Jean Marais plays the Beast, and while his face is unrecognizable behind pounds and pounds of makeup, his large eyes shine through from underneath. His mildly effeminate, gravelly voice bellows out from deep within his body. He imbues the Beast with a stuffy regality, an off-putting social awkwardness, and a palpable desperation. We learn nothing of how he came to be, or how he came to rule an enchanted castle lost in the middle of the woods. We know not how he learned the transporting spells that take Belle to and from her home.
Some people may feel shortchanged by this lack of dramatic backstory (especially those who were raised on the 1991 Animated “Beauty and the Beast”), but in Cocteau’s version of things, merely seeing the Beast gives us all the information we need. He is a Beast. A fantasy creature. He behaves the way he does because that’s what the laws of Fable require.
We become as familiar with the Beast as Belle does. Indeed, it becomes hard to accept the fact that he will indeed return to his human form later in the film (as we know he will). When the greedy Avenant hears of the Beast’s magical store of treasure, and attempts to plunder it, he dies, and has his body transposed with the Beast’s. It’s unclear exactly what happened in this scene; no magical rules are given for the Beast, and no clear connection is made between his curse and his magically protected treasures. Belle, upon seeing the newly transformed Beast, looks not with elation and joy in his freedom from the curse, but with suspicion. We look with suspicion, too. Why does he look like Avenant? Why did he bother to transform at all?
Indeed, a story is told about the premiere of “Beauty and the Beast:” When Marlene Dietrich, who was sitting next to Cocteau, saw Marais, sans make, in the film’s finale, exclaimed, “Where is my wonderful beast?”
Generally, fantasy films start with a fantastic premise, and then imbue themselves with recognizable and relatable realism (or perhaps just typical melodrama) as the story progresses. “Beauty and the Beast” does not do this. Indeed, as the proceedings continue, Cocteau is sure to stay firmly entrenched in his dreamlike world. He is sure to obey – and obey completely – the laws of Fable.
This is the triumph of “Beauty and the Beast.” That it manages to create a completely original and surreal and comforting world. That it does so from an ancient narrative that most everyone is familiar with is further proof of its success. One of the functions of film, I argue, is to welcome us into another universe for a short while; to allow us to completely exist in the imagination of another; to give us kinship with deeper recesses of human thought. Some films do this by appealing to our darker fantasies (the films of David Lynch), some do it by attaching us to personal memory (the films of Fellini), some do it by reflecting on the nature of memory in general (The films of Alain Resnais), some do it by attaching us to dreams (the film of Buñuel), some by philosophy (Ingmar Bergman), and some by sheer joy (the late films of Jean Renoir). Cocteau, a poet, author, and filmmaker, manages to make a film that incorporates all of these elements into a fantastic and engaging film that is, at once, dizzying, beautiful, off-putting, warm, bizarre, familiar, and dramatically tense.
If I were to criticize the film, I would have to indicate its strange lessons. What are we to take away from the Beast? The ending is clearly a little too tidy for its own good. I suspect that Cocteau was uncomfortable with the classic fairy tale’s happy ending, and could also glean no messages from Avenant’s death, or the Beast’s elation at being saved. “I do not deserve to live, a beast like me.” Well, we feel his self pity, and also feel that he cannot be saved. But then he is. He lives, he marries Belle, and everyone seems uncomfortable with it.
Cocteau’s defense to all this is Josette Day’s one quizzical look. No, she seems to say with her eyes. Where is my beautiful beast? Cocteau cannily diffuses all his problems with the story’s ending – and hence our own – with that one moment. It does not necessarily make the ending sit any better with us, but he does address that the ending does not fit with the rest of the story.
“Beauty and the Beast” is a film for children. It is a film to study. It is a film to enjoy and it is a film to engulf. It is a poem. A thing that is designed not necessarily to tell a story, but to enhance to beauty of the thing described. It is an opera. Indeed, Phillip Glass composed an opera from the film’s dialogue, that can be played alongside the film. Either way, the effect will be great, and the film will be sublime.