La Belle et la Bête

“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…”–Jean Cocteau, prologue to Beauty and the Beast

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FEATURING: Jean Marais, Josette Day

PLOT: A merchant who has fallen on hard times wanders onto a mysterious estate and plucks a single rose to take back to his daughter, Belle. He is suddenly faced with a bipedal Beast, dressed as a nobleman, who says that the penalty for the theft is death, but who offers to spare the old man’s life if he will send his daughter in his place. Against her father’s wishes, Belle volunteers to be kept as the Beast’s prisoner, but the longer she stays in his magical castle the more she sees the noble heart beating underneath the bestial hide.

Still from Beauty and the Beast (1946)

  • Jean Cocteau considered himself a poet who dabbled in filmmaking, although today he is best remembered for his contributions to cinema rather than literature. La Belle et la Bête was his first narrative feature film after making the 55-minute Surrealist film Blood of a Poet [Le sang d’un poète] in 1932.
  • This version of the story is based on 1756 fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont; it was a faithful adaptation, except that Cocteau invented the role of Avenant.
  • Cocteau suffered from a painful skin disease during shooting, and even had to be hospitalized once while filming continued (technical adviser Rene Clement directed in his absence). At times he wore a mask while directing to hide his inflamed countenance.
  • Jean Marais, who played Avenant, the Beast, and the Prince, was Cocteau’s lover. It is rumored that he convinced Cocteau to take on the project, thinking the role would launch his career as a French matinee idol (it did).
  • Minimalist composer and frequent film scorer Philip Glass composed an alternate soundtrack for the film (conceived of as an opera).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Although it’s difficult to disregard the Beast’s magnificent makeup, it’s the candelabras made of living human arms lining the castle’s corridors that have made the strangest and most lasting impression over the years.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Handelabras; statues that watch you; the steaming Beast

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: There is no movie before or since that manages to strike the same tone of dreamy believability as Beauty and the Beast. It’s a spectacle picture wrapped in the trappings of high art, mixing conventional storytelling with a smattering of Surrealist visuals. Too dry to entertain the very young, Cocteau nonetheless begs us to look at the film as if we were children; to surrender to the Beast’s enchantments and enter his mysterious halls lined with arms and statues that calmly watch us as we watch them.

Trailer for La Belle et la Bête

COMMENTS: Jean Cocteau argued with his cinematographer, the celebrated Henri Alekan, over the proper style for shooting the world of La Belle et la Bête. The cameraman wanted to use a fuzzy, soft focus approach (perhaps he was thinking of ?) to suggest an otherworldly realm. Cocteau demanded instead that the camerawork be realistic, even as it depicted unreal things: “People have decided  once and for all that fuzziness is poetic,” he proclaimed in his film diary. “Since in my eyes poetry is precision, numbers, I’m pushing Alekan in precisely the opposite direction from what fools think is poetic.” Cocteau’s methods of dealing with the tension between reality and unreality in this film prove the perfect balance: visually credible enough to fool our eyes into seeing the Beast’s demesne as a real world, but never sacrificing imagination on the altar of plausibility. The characters are archetypal, but the acting steers away from melodrama; the sets are realistic, but with surreal elements depicted casually. The lighting is Expressionistic. Cocteau’s principle is “a film is a piece of writing in pictures, and I try to give it an atmosphere which will bring out the feeling in the film rather than correspond to the facts.” Just because he is filming a fairy tale full of impossible events does not mean that he will fail to honor the truth of his story.

Belle’s provincial home life, which we are immersed in for the first fifteen minutes of the film and return to periodically, is depicted with an unflattering harshness. Belle’s father, a merchant, has fallen on hard times, and the household suffers under the burden of its debts. Her family are stock archetypes: the foolish doting father, the wicked jealous sisters, the dissolute brother. Yet, they seem very real; so real that when two rambunctious oafs carelessly shoot an arrow into the sisters’ dressing room while jostling each other at target practice, they almost hit the family lapdog. Added to the familial mix is Avenant, the errant archer and Cocteau’s lone addition to the original fairy tale plot. He will play an important, and troubling, role in the story. He is the brother’s drinking and gambling partner and Belle’s self-appointed suitor. While Belle’s two sisters are vain, mean-spirited and shallow, and her brother is a ne’er-do-well who mortgages his father’s furniture, the golden-haired dandy Avenant is far worse, going above and beyond his reputation as a scoundrel. He forces himself on the resisting Belle, coldcocks her brother, slaps her sister, and professes his love for the girl while scheming to steal the Beast’s treasure. Belle, meanwhile, is the least believable character: refusing any offer of marriage so she can tend to her sick father, working to support the family while her worthless siblings spend beyond their means, and asking for a single humble rose as a gift when her sisters demand exotic pets. Her unnatural virtue and modesty amidst the self-absorption of those around her is fairy-tale standard, but has seldom been depicted in such a casually realistic manner as it is in these opening scenes. They sketch a bitter reality from which anyone would long to escape.

That escape comes in the form of the Beast and his magical castle, an intrusion of superior fantasy into the pathetic poverty the family otherwise suffers. Her father finds the place first, while lost in the woods at night. The trees suddenly part to reveal what appears to be an abandoned estate. Doors open of their own accord, and the foyer is lit by a human arms sticking out from the walls, clutching candles that spontaneously light as he approaches them. The faces sculpted on the chimney mantle watch him as he eats the feast laid out on the dinner table and drinks wine poured by another disembodied hand. He has stepped into someone else’s dream, one where he appears to be expected, or at least not unwelcome. When Belle arrives in his place, she makes the same dreamlike procession through the household: moving in slow motion through one shadowy corridor as Georges Auric’s mystical music plays, then gliding through another without moving her feet as curtains billow about her. There is a magic mirror in her bedroom, stag carcasses littered around the grounds, and strands of pearls which materialize from the Beast’s hands (that turn into withered steaming vines when someone else tries to take them). The surroundings are opulent and magical, and even though she is essentially a hostage, it’s no surprise that once she settles in Belle would not be in a hurry to leave—if not for the love of her father, the same obligation that keeps her from marrying.

The Beast’s makeup is a marvel to behold; his face is at the same time of terrifying, like a lion, but adorable like a proud fox, or even a dog or cat. His fearsome, yet inhumanly handsome, duality reflects his character. He has fangs and hair and bestial habits, but at the same time he has an almost superhuman dignity and nobility. He suffers from his internal war with his animal impulses, a struggle that engages Belle’s feminine protective instincts. After he kills—for food, not out of sadism—his entire body steams with guilt, and he is ashamed for Belle to see him. He is masculine, yet sensitive, fierce and loyal, and a landowner to boot. A true catch—if only he were human!

There is one point no one remains silent on in Beauty and the Beast: the ending. The Beast lies dying of love for Belle, who, it seems, arrives at his side too late. Meanwhile, Avenant is stealing into the Temple of Diana to try to steal the Beast’s treasure. Avenant is shot with an arrow, falls to the ground, and turns into the Beast. Suddenly, a foppish Prince springs up where the dying Beast had lain; a Prince with the face of Avenant. Belle, understandably, is taken aback by the transformation. But we are blindsided as well when she confesses to the Prince that she loved both Avenant and the Beast. It is bad enough to have our Beast taken from us, but our opinion of Belle sinks when we discover that she secretly loved the handsome but abusive miscreant, the epitome of a bad heart hidden inside a handsome body. “You’re a strange girl, Belle,” says the Prince, a man who lives in a magical castle, eats live deer, and only ten seconds ago traded fur and fangs for a ruffled collar and a feathered cap. He then grabs her and literally flies away to install her as Queen in his lost kingdom (the simply-done flying scene is, like the rest of the movie, magical). The ending seems rushed, as well as emotionally unsatisfactory (if not an outright betrayal). Most people are disappointed to lose the magnificent animal we fell in love with; in an oft-repeated anecdote, Greta Garbo (sometimes Marlene Dietrich) complains at the end of a screening, “give me back my Beast!”

Of course, in reality no woman would prefer her lover to be hairy and deformed. That’s a nice idea as a metaphor, but who would literally want to share her bed with a werewolf? Even if she were erotically attracted to his bestial glamor, how would she handle the social embarrassment when M. and Mme. Camus invited the new couple over for hors d’oeuvres? Even Belle, who seems the paragon of wisdom and goodness, prefers a pretty face to an ugly one; she is attracted to both the exterior and the interior of a man. Of course, that is more honest than the usual fairy tale nonsense about surface appearance being worthless and interior goodness the only thing of value. Cocteau is being the sneakiest of cynics here; the emotional crash of the ending is intentional. “My aim would be to make the Beast so human, so sympathetic, so superior to men, that his transformation into Prince Charming would come as a terrible blow to Beauty, condemning her to a humdrum marriage and a future that I summed up in that last sentence of all fairy tales: ‘And they had many children.’” The disappointment of the finale is a trick, a final shredding of the fairy tale curtain and an ironic critique of the story’s moral (which, after all, is insincere; since the Beast turns into regal Prince, the tale never plays fair, as Belle always gets to evade the consequences of her choice and have her wholesome and her handsome man in one body). This is how Cocteau maintains his avant-garde edge while dealing in a populist medium; he gives the people what they think they want, but leaves them dissatisfied with their own desire. Cocteau wants his art to challenge us. The trick, he says, is “to devise ways to please and displease at the same time.”


“Freudian or metaphysician, you can take from it what you will. The concepts are so ingenious that they’re probably apt to any rationale… the visual progression of the fable into a dream-world casts its unpredictable spell.”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…the cinema’s most ‘poetic’ work, a beautiful, dreamlike telling of the classic fairy tale.”–Danny Peary, “Cult Movies”

“…a beautiful hallucination that doesn’t make sense next to other, more conventional films, but is perfect in relationship to itself, viewed without preconception or cynicism. That, perhaps, is what Cocteau meant when he begged that we approach the film as a child.”–Tim Brayton, Antagony & Ecstasy (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Beauty and the Beast (1946)


Beauty and the Beast (1946) – The Criterion Collection – Features include the trailer, a slideshow of Marais’ makeup ordeal to be made into the Beast, an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien, and an excerpt from Francis Steegmuller‘s “Cocteau: A Biography,” and an explanation of the film by Cocteau himself, from the U.S. press book

La belle et la bête (1946) – Overview – tcm.com – Turner Classic Movies’ Beauty and the Beast page hosts four film clips and extensive notes by Frank Miller

Beauty and the Beast Movie Review | Roger Ebert – Roger Ebert’s article on the film for his “Great Movies” series

What’s the Big Deal?: Beauty and the Beast (1946) – Good background information from Eric Snider of Film.com with links for further reading


Beauty and the Beast: Diary of a Film – Cocteau’s running diary from the set of Beauty and the Beast

DVD INFO: Beauty and the Beast was one of the Criterion Collection’s first acquisitions (back when they specialized in laserdiscs!) and they first released the DVD (buy) in 2003. Special features include interviews with some of the surviving crew, rare behind-the-scenes stills, and the usual booklet of essays and analysis (including a piece by Cocteau himself). The most interesting special feature may be Philip Glass’s Beauty and the Beast opera, properly synced to the film as an alternate soundtrack.

Criterion released the Blu-ray version (buy) in 2011.

Beauty and the Beast is also available to rent rent or buy on-demand.

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