Tuesday, August 25, 2009

La Belle et La Bete - Cocteau 1947

Some of life’s experiences leave an indelible mark upon us and areas of what we do in aspects of our lives.
One such experience was my first viewing of Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece fantasy film LA BELLE ET LA BETE (Beauty and the Beast).

Filmed entirely in Black and white –the film is enriched by the serendipitous fact that being made in 1946 shortly after the close of the war, film stock was at a premium; consequently Beauty is filmed on several types of film ranging from crisp and stark in the “reality” scenes to diffuse and misty in some of the scenes in the Beast’s kingdom.

This is a fairy tale that is dark and brooding true its origins and again made better by being entirely in French (I have seen this film dubbed which detracts from the overall atmosphere-we all know the story it’s simple enough to follow along).

Clever lighting and use of existing structures allow a low budget to look opulent and rich. Camera shots are skewed and never exactly what you would envision with shadows and objects intruding in places where one would expect a clear view. These devices allow our imaginations to fill in the blanks and overlay our own mental images on the realm of the Beast.

Special effects are often filmed as they happen, living arms support candelabras, and live human faces peer out from carved mantles and statues.

This Beast is restrained and elegant, a vicious cat whose ears lay back when prey is near and whose hands smoke when he has killed.

Jean Marais, a Cocteau regular, plays the beast so sympathetically that when he transforms into a handsome blonde prince we want our Beast back.

Josette Day is a beautiful cross between ballerina and mannequin who belongs in a mysterious kingdom where tears turn to diamonds and mirrors allow you to time travel. This Beauty is fragile but strong willed at the same time, delicate but able to tame the beast by the emotions she focuses on him from her eyes.

Haunting scenes include a long hall with floating white curtains that connects the common rooms of the beasts castle with the bedrooms, huge grotesque statuary on the grounds of the "Beasts" castle which actually exist on an estate in France and the sumptuous costumes glittering in the candlelight of the nightly supper ritual.

If you can’t rent the Criterion Collection restoration you might watch for this film on cable as it now plays on Turner Classics Movies occasionally.

Children, at least those that I have shared this movie with, don’t seem as taken with this version as adults are.

I think the lack of colour and English dialog along with a sophisticated progression of plots and subplots (plus the familiarity of the Disney animated version) are the reasons.

Decidedly worth viewing it’s one of my top 10 films of all time and I can watch it over and over finding new details in each viewing.

Even in our modern high definition age La Belle et la Bête holds its own and doesn’t seem tired or dated, certainly not as much as many Hollywood films released in the late 1940s.

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