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This is a review of La Belle et La Bête (1946), as shown at Bath Film Festival 2013 (@BathFilm) in a new BFI (@BFI) restoration (a trade-in for writing a Film Note for the festival)
S = script
A = acting
C = cinematography
M = music
P = pacing
F = feel
9 = mid-point of scale (all scored out of 17, 17 x 6 = 102)
La Belle et La Bête (Cocteau, chalking up credits, adds the accent as an afterthought) (1946) at @BathFilm - beautiful film and restoration.
— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) November 30, 2013
Georges Auric, just on the showing of this score (though, amongst others, he worked his effect on such highly rated films as Passport to Pimlico (1948) and Roman Holiday (1953)), would be considered an insightful composer. He gives us, for example, a compact overture, builds to a finale to match the assumptive apotheosis, and, in between, has unresolved chords when a dark forest is being penetrated, tellingly uses the middle part of the oboe’s register at key moments, and transforms and modulates themes to suggest the transitional moods.
As one would expect of him, Jean Cocteau has produced in this film a work that resonates with literary, cultural and homosexual allusion and yields an almost overwhelming richness of meaning*. On one level, Adéläide (Nane Germon) and Félicie (Mila Parély) are the ugly sisters from Cinderella, except that they are not ugly beyond their attitudes and aspirations, but just that La Belle (Josette Day) is more beautiful in all of those things. (We also have something like the looking-glass from Snow White, hints of Goldilocks when the father enters La Bête’s domain, and Little Red Riding Hood with the perilous forest.)
Looked at differently, we have Shakespearean perspectives in La Belle’s father as Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, with Bottom’s becoming an ass, and with Lear’s division of the kingdom between his daughters, where La Belle asks but for a rose (as against a monkey or a parrot) and is blamed when plucking one (with all the rich symbolism of rose-picking going back to The Romaunt of the Rose) proves dire.
On the level of realistic narrative, a father looking to save himself at the suggestion that one of his daughter’s should die in his place seems monstrous, though little as monstrous as much in Lear, but it amounts to the same thing : which of the daughters loves him more than the others to take his place (with all the suggestion of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice) ? Link this with the insincerity of La Belle’s sisters, their scheming, and their desire to subjugate her and one has quite a bit more than the Prince Charming story.
What we must also have is inspiration for other filmic enterprises such as Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), The Elephant Man (1980), Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Edward Scissorhands (1990), but also wide influences from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (for whose film Auric wrote the music ten years later) and Nosferatu (1926) (those doors that open themselves) to the Wife of Bath’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales.
Names are important (though probably inherited by Cocteau, but he would have known what to do with them), with, beyond Belle = Beauty, ones that mean happy or lucky (Félicie), noble or honourable (Adéläide), fame or fighter / warrior (Ludovic), and pleasant or welcoming (Avenant) : link beauty with happiness and honour and you have a powerful trio, but, when being happy means selfishly seeking out one’s own comfort (even at the risk of another becoming a slave) and when it is only honour amongst thieves, one has a pair as corrupt and venal as Goneril and Regan.
The circumstances of shooting, so soon after the end of the war, mean that the privations that Chris Baker brings out in his festival film not only match those of this family wracked by debt by vessels being lost at sea (U-boats, etc.), but are also reminiscent of The Cherry Orchard, with so many people, other than the self-motivated sisters, failing to do anything beyond moping or spending the last pennies in the tavern to remedy the situation (and La Belle only incidentally does that by her holy tears of pity turning to diamonds). The requirements to be careful whom one trusted in war time, and who one’s real friends were, must have been raw topics at this film’s release.
With La Belle and La Bête, the polarity is more obvious, with him moaning Je sais que je suis horrible – she, who was a willing sacrifice, brings to him her goodness and faith, which he finds hard to receive, and is adamantly vocal that she should not kneel to him. At the start, with a clapperboard that was going to set things off interrupted by Cocteau’s written admonition read aloud by him (and, as in the credits, with a superscript five-pointed star), we are urged how to try to enter into this world. La Belle, likewise, enters into La Bête’s world, and, in return for glowing less with a kind of saintliness in her beauty **, takes on a different beauty that she can share with him, where La Bête can become Ma Bête.
As, in more senses than one, this is a tale of enchantment, I had a theory about La Bête (which turned out to be wrong), but I became more interested in his psychology, brought out wonderfully by Jean Marais both in his vocal tone, and his eyes, demeanour and gait. He did change, did develop before our eyes, and the side of him that exacted bargains from people on pain of death, humbled before La Belle, appeared to soften. He is a sort of Prospero, swearing a vengeance on his brother and other betrayers that he does not - cannot - carry out (which is where the Greenaway connection is), or a bit the man behind the illusion of The Wizard of Oz.
Cocteau winds up the story gradually, seeming to be an unmagical one until the branches part in the forest and the father finds himself in La Bête’s domain. When he enters, and the male hands holding a candelabra move and gesture, and the male faces watch and follow, we are conscious that he is a man amongst disembodied male features, and there is a homoerotic tinge (when the hand at the table lets go of the shaft (sic) of the candelabrum to pour the wine, the father jumps a mile) – later, when La Belle passes through, and, after that, describes how they brush her hair, they take on a different character. Striking imagery that could not have failed to say some to a film-maker such as Peter Greenaway, or a writer such as Samuel Beckettt.
Whatever meaning one tries to put on this film, no one will adhere, because it is, with music, words and the visual world, such a coherent piece of art that it is, as Chris Baker says was Cocteau’s desire, poetry, and demands to be watched over again.
* Whatever its starting-point in the writing of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.
** I am not with Chris Baker in finding a Vermeer resemblance made out, not even to what is called Girl with a Pearl Earring, as hair swept back and in a headscarf is not an unusual look.
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)