Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Beauty and the Beast

"Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things. 

I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood's "Open Sesame":

Once upon a time..."

So opens Jean Cocteau's 1946 take on the classic French fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast. The earliest screen take on the tale, Cocteau's movie is magical in every sense of the word. He created a fairy tale real world, where Belle comes from. And he created a darker, slightly creepier, but also whimsically fascinating world for the Beast's castle. The basic outline of the movie will be familiar to most people thanks to the famous Disney take on it, so there's no need for plot description. I'll say that Cocteau took me to a world I wanted to see more of, and told me an engaging and delightful tale while I was there.

Although Belle (Josette Day) is probably thought of as the main character, it's the Beast that's the star of the show. The Beast was played by Cocteau's long time lover, Jean Marais, who also took on the villainous role of Avenant (this movie's equivalent of the Gaston character from Disney's movie). And it's amazing the kind of magnetic charisma he radiates as the Beast, and the back stabbing sliminess we feel of his Avenant. When the Beast is ultimately transformed into a prince looking like Avenant (it makes sense in the dreaminess of the movie), we, like Belle, are disappointed. Reportedly, at the premiere, when this happened, Marlene Dietrich, while holding Cocteau's hand, yelled out "Where is my beautiful beast?" And I have to agree with her. It kinda left a bad taste in my mouth, but it really points to how terrific the Beast is here.
I would still recommend this movie to anyone who thinks they might be interested in it. It's not the big showy crowd pleaser the Disney version is. This one is a tad darker, filled to the brim with symbolism one could spend hours dissecting But it's also magical and romantic and wondrous It's also got great imagery and sets and costumes. When the Beast is carrying Belle up the stairs is my personal favorite sequence, and that's not taking into account the creepy human arms holding candlesticks, the statues that watch Belle (are they a victim of the same curse as the Beast? Is the whole castle haunted? Is the castle the origin of the magic? Many questions to think about since Cocteau lovingly gave so much to this world creation) It's just like a fairy tale movie should be. Not shiny and sanitized, although I wouldn't accuse the Disney version of being that either, but filled with as much depth as you want it to be, so that it can appeal to everyone at any age. A wonderful movie.

No comments: