February 14, 2017
Next month Disney will release their live action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens. It is sure to be sumptuous and well-appointed and all that, but it’s unlikely to approach the carnal magic of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version (streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck), ideal viewing for this Valentine’s Day. Made soon after the close of WWII, with France still lacking many basic supplies, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast conjured the uncanny out of odds and ends: busted cameras, cracked lenses, unstable film stock. Somehow DP Henri Alekan captured the look Cocteau sought, the ““soft gleam of hand-polished old silver.” The fable unspools in this soft gleam, with the elusiveness of a dream you try to remember upon waking. Cocteau wrote in his production diary that, “My method is simple: not to aim at poetry. That must come of its own accord. The mere whispered mention of its name frightens it away. I shall try to build a table. It will be up to you then to eat at it, to examine it or to chop it up for firewood.” For generations audiences have been examining his handmade table, and finding it to be more surreal and darkly romantic every year.
Cocteau’s biographer Francis Steegmuller summarizes the working conditions on the set: “Old cameras jammed, old lenses developed flaws, no two batches of film were alike, electric current failed or was bureaucratically cut off; there was small choice of fabrics for costumes; sheets without patches were sought everywhere for the farmyard laundry scene; the curtains of Beauty’s bed were stolen from the set.” It was made for the Gaumont studio, but before it had fully recovered from the privations of war. So Cocteau had to rely on his crew of artisans to patch up mistakes, find workarounds for shortages and fabricate the fantastic illusions of Beast’s castle out of what was left over. The film is a triumph of ingenuity and craft. The most obvious example is the astonishing makeup used on the Beast (Jean Marais), designed by Hagop Arakelian. The Beast is given a round, open face, with room for Marais’s expressive eyes to emote through the thatch of fur. Two little fangs punch down out of his mouth, undermining his cuteness. Though Belle initially is repulsed by his appearance, she grows to acquire a fondness for the Beast, treating him as a puppy dog. This is only believable if the makeup allows for the actor’s charisma to display itself. Makeup more stiff, or grotesque, would render Belle’s slow infatuation ridiculous. Instead it flows naturally from the film’s dream world. Marais fondly remembered working with the man who applied the mask:
For my mask, we went to Pontet, an elderly gentleman, a real genius, one of those men who make you realize that one can be passionately in love with one’s work whatever it may be. He devoted a great deal of thought to how the mask could be given the look of my own face and not interfere with its mobility. He made a cast and worked on it endlessly. I often went to see him with Moulouk, and the dog taught us things: the unevenness and shagginess and spottiness of the fur that make it seem so alive are due to Moulouk. M. Pontet made my mask like a wig, hair on a webbing base, but in three parts—one down to the eyes, a second as far as the upper lip, and the third to the base of the neck . . . It took me five hours to make up—that meant thirteen hours a day in the studio. Because of the fangs attached to my teeth, all I could eat was mush, and that by the spoonful. Between takes, I scarcely dared open my mouth, lest the makeup become unglued; no one understood what I said, and that exasperated me.
Belle’s character, played with sweetness and light by Josette Day, is aided immeasurably by the costumes of Christian Bérard. The costumes are somehow of their time and outside of it, both practical and fantastical. Cocteau described it as, “[Bérard] makes us realize that a costume is not merely a costume but something dependent on many circumstances which change quickly and compel you to change with them. Men and women dressed by Bérard look as though they lived at a definite place, in a definite period, and not as though they were going to a fancy dress ball.” Belle is initially uncomfortable in her finery the first time the Beast joins her for dinner. She had previously been something of an ascetic, wearing the simple cloth of a maid (which she essentially was for her family). So while initially lost in the piles of tulle, Belle begins to fully embody them, fill them out body and soul, until she is as elegant as the outfits – they enrich each other. When Belle tries to gift one of the Beast’s necklaces to her gold-digging sisters, it turns to a smoking piece of rope. It is only Belle who can wear them, her suit of armor.
The most transfixing sequences in the film remain Belle’s initial explorations of the Beast’s castle. It is here that Cocteau uses the simplest of cinematic tricks to convey images of uncanny magic. He reverses the film so it looks like candelabras are lighting themselves (held by arms whose bodies are obscured by drop cloth). Belle glides down a hallway on a wheeled platform hidden under her dress, as curtains billow around her. Superimpositions place Belle and the Beast in the sky, as they fly away to their lives as King and Queen. The familiarity of these tricks gives them this power, an innocence in both form and story that is sublimely beautiful. Manoel de Oliveira is after something similar in The Strange Case of Angelica (2010), with his own superimposed lovers flying through the air.
It is remarkable how enduring these sequences are, how they retain their mystery. Beast’s castle is magical but also monstrous and menacing, cloaked in darkness and hissing with smoke. The place is charmed with a talking door and a magic mirror, but they speak with the same monotone voice, neither friend nor foe, just some inanimate objects doing a job. It never opens up with the grandeur of the Disney animated version, where the whole kitchen cabinet becomes her cheering section. No, Belle is on her own, left to decide if the Beast is a manipulative monster or a sensitive soul. And in re-watching the film, the ending was more ambiguous than I had remembered. The Beast’s curse is lifted yes, and he turns into a beautiful Prince, but Belle is slightly disappointed in the transformation. For the human Beast looks quite like one of her suitors from the farm at home. Belle hesitates to go away with him – she was looking for an escape but might be going in circles. But, with no other options, she flies into his arms and up into the sky to live as husband and wife, future king and queen. But perhaps not happily ever after.