Broach the subject of Beauty & The Beast and it’s Disney’s early 90s classic that will be brought to the minds of most. However, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 18th Century fairytale of a beautiful maiden who becomes love-struck by a ferocious looking beast living in a nearby castle was originally adapted for the screen in 1946 by French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. 2013’s London Film Festival marked 50 years since Cocteau’s death and to celebrate his fine body of work, La Belle et La Bête was shown in a digitally remastered form that now benefits from a wider release as part of the BFI’s Gothic season. A magical and moving story, it is truly majestic cinema that thoroughly deserves to be reshown on the big screen.
Cocteau’s intentions of telling a tale of fantasy are made clear from the outset, when the director uses a written preamble to break the forth wall and introduce the story. A story Cocteau goes on to engrossingly weave with a delicate touch that is at times funny and at others sad.
Played by the beautiful Josette Day, Belle is a striking figure of untouched purity. With her sparkling eyes and mild mannered voice, she is a heroine to whom we can relate; her life spent taking care of her father and cleaning up after her neglectful sisters evoking a heightened sympathy for her character. Belle’s father is a man plagued with money trouble, and who comes in to a fortune that he must travel to collect. It is when returning, his fortune having been taken from him, that he stumbles across the Beast’s castle.
Blending fantasy with horror, it is here that Cocteau’s film ignites. As Belle’s father approaches the castle, Christian Berard and Lucien Carre’s sumptuous production design mixes with Georges Auric’s alluring score to create a sensational slice of Gothic fantasy horror. The magical castle gates and exaggerated shadows draw strong memories of the expressionist films, particularly Murnau’s Nosferatu, that define the genre.
Indeed, the whole film is a visually enticing masterpiece that creates an illusion of fantasy that captures both our heart and imagination. The delicate restoration allows for an infinitely sharper picture, that does justice to the mystical imagery. Behind the lens, Cocteau is a master who innovatively uses camera trickery to capture the otherworldly magic that lies within the Beast’s castle. The breathtaking set designs do justice to our imaginations, giving the film a richly aesthetic quality that captivates us as only the finest fairytales can.
Then there’s the Beast himself, a frighteningly ominous presence brought to life using an eye-opening mixture of costume and make-up. His viciously cruel eyes and deep, booming voice are inescapably terrifying, but it’s in the film’s quieter moments that the Beast truly enraptures. Jean Marais’ performance is one that builds subtly during the film’s quieter moments, the actor finding an emphatic vulnerability in the Beast’s insecurities. Marais plays the monster with a profoundly human heart that allows the blossoming love story between Belle and him to feel tangible, adding a wondrous quality that hypnotizes you from start to finish.
For, at the end of the day, this is a tale of fantasy that is driven by love. La Belle et La Bête, with all its wonder, is a fairytale that stands head and shoulders above the rest. It’s a tale driven by a refreshingly genuine depiction of love, where inner beauty trumps a handsome appearance, that’s bolstered by its incredible performances and exceptional imagery. Nearly 70 years later, it’s a film that remains astounding to behold… a tale as old as time, indeed.
La Belle et La Bête is showing at the BFI Southbank throughout January. Alternatively, it is also available to rent on the BFI’s online player. Full details can be found at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/