Directed By: Jean Cocteau
Starring: Jean Marais, Josette Day, Mila Parély
Trivia: It took five hours for Jean Marais to put on his make-up as the Beast
La Belle ET la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) opens with a hand-written letter from the film’s director, Jean Cocteau. In it, Cocteau asks his audience to return to a time in their lives when they approached everything with a “childlike simplicity”, when the line separating fantasy and reality wasn't quite so well defined. In so doing, the director hoped we might remember what it was like to believe in fairy tales, in a world of magic and wonder, where a beautiful woman could, in fact, fall in love with a hideous beast.
Beauty and the Beast is more or less faithful to Madame Le Prince de Beaumont’s classic fairy tale. Belle (Josette Day), a beautiful maiden, lives with her father (Marcel André), brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair) and her two overbearing sisters, Félicie (Mila Parély) and Adélaïde (Nane Germon). One night, as Belle’s father is returning home from a business meeting, he mistakenly enters a strange castle in the woods, where he awakens a monster. This monster is the Beast (Jean Marais), a hideous creature upon whom a horrible spell has been cast, damning it to a life of isolation. The Beast agrees to spare the father, but only if one of the man’s daughters will take his place, and live with the Beast in his castle for the rest of her days. Belle, who cannot bear the thought of losing her father, agrees to the Beast’s terms. At first terrified of her new landlord, Belle will, over time, realize that the Beast is kind, gentle, and quite pitiful; in short, anything but the monster he appears to be.
In Beauty and the Beast, Cocteau has created a wondrous world, filled with magic and fantasy. Candles, held in place by human arms that jut out of the wall, illuminate the hallways of the Beast’s castle; and statues come to life, with peering eyes that follow every motion. But not all of the special effects are quite so elaborate. One day, as Belle and the Beast are strolling the grounds of the castle, enjoying a nice afternoon together, a passing doe, frolicking in the woods, momentarily distracts the Beast. The Beast pauses, and his ears perk up, as if an animal alerted by his instincts of a possible kill. This effect, the raising of the Beast’s ears, is so simple, so brief, and yet it immediately caught my eye. It comes at a time when we have accepted that the Beast is not a monster, yet in that brief moment we realize he is, after all, still a Beast.
Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast was not created for children per se, but for adults who could place themselves in a child’s frame of mind. While watching this movie, we are, for a short time, children once again, and our imaginations soar as they had years earlier, when we heard our parents utter those four words, “Once Upon a Time”.