The Umpteenth Blogathon: Beauty and the Beast (dir. Jean Cocteau, 1946)

This post is for the Umpteenth Blogathon, hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. It’s a blogathon dedicated to the movies individual bloggers have watched obsessively over the years. Check out the other posts at this link!

SPOILER ALERT! Let it be known, I’m discussing this movie in a fair amount of detail including the ending. I imagine most people know how the Beauty and the Beast story ends, but just in case you’re uninitiated with this movie and want to go into this classic absolutely cold, then watch the movie before reading this.

Image source: MOMA

Some people cannot rewatch movies. They don’t see a point. You already know what’s going to happen. Comedies become less funny. Suspenseful films become less suspenseful. Mystery films are spoiled by knowing who did it. Even art films don’t evade these beliefs about diminishing returns.

Yeah, that’s not me. I love rewatching my favorite films, be they blockbusters or Bergman. Any film that tells its story well will still hold up on repeat viewings. Not every movie is a one-and-done affair and to suggest otherwise is an insult to cinema as an art form, if you ask me.

I also don’t care how astute a filmgoer you believe yourself to be: a movie with many layers cannot be understood on a single watch, especially when the viewer is coming in fresh. Case in point: Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, a movie I have literally watched dozens of times and have yet to grow tired of, let alone fully comprehend.

Many might not get why that is the case. After all, aren’t fairy tales just simple stories for kids? Aren’t they full of bad advice about romance and happy endings? Songs like Maroon 5’s “Payphone” proclaim that “all those fairy tales are full of shit,” after all. Maybe when you get your understanding of fairy tales from popular culture, this might seem to be the case… but no. That’s not what fairy tales are, especially not Cocteau’s magnificent fairy tale film.

Fairy tales are not realist novels or self-help books. They reflect a complex inner reality in their presentation of humanity’s deepest desires and primal fears, but they are not meant to give you dating advice or comfort you with promises of a literal, concrete happily ever after. If anything, fairy tale worlds are perilous. In his book on Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, historian JB Kaufman describes the original context of fairy tales as less sunny than most imagine: “[F]airy tales were expected to contain elements of magic and enchantment but also commonly depicted a cold, forbidding, and dangerous world.” For that reason, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is my idea of the perfect fairy tale film. There’s nothing sugary or safe about it.

The basic outline should be familiar: Belle, a lovely young woman, takes her father’s place as the prisoner of a Beast who lives in a remote castle. At first repulsed by his animalistic appearance, she comes to see the goodness within him. Her love transforms the Beast into a handsome prince and they marry.

However, Cocteau’s version stands apart from other retellings in its strange details and surrealistic touches. For one thing, Cocteau adds a human suitor for Belle, the handsome but unpleasant Avenant (Disney would famously reincarnate this character into the meme-inspiring, antler aficionado Gaston). Cocteau also tells this enchantment-filled story with a surprising lack of spectacle, setting this film apart from other cinematic fantasies of the time, like The Wizard of Oz or The Thief of Bagdad. Those films seek to wow you with their spectacular effects and color. Not so in Cocteau’s dreamlike, black-and-white universe.

In Cocteau’s world, there is no real spectacle to Belle gliding down a corridor when she first enters the enchanted castle or the candles along the wall igniting by themselves as Belle’s father walks past them. The effects are antique even for the 1940s, yet they somehow make the magic seem more matter-of-fact, further immersing us into the tactile reality of this world.

The characterizations of the titular beauty and beast are no less unsentimental than the magic. Jean Marais’ Beast is as tragic a figure as any classic movie monster, desperate for love and ashamed of his ugliness. He has the soul of a sensitive poet, yet he is also tormented by a desire to kill when he hears wildlife rustling in the bushes. Unlike Disney’s angry and selfish Beast, Marais’ Beast is a victim of vengeful spirits rather than his own bad behavior, making him all the more pitiable.*

Josette Day’s Belle is arguably even more complicated than the Beast and not in a way that immediately endears her to the audience. Her characterization was downright baffling to me the first few times I saw the movie. Used to the feisty bookworm of the Disney version, Day’s Belle seemed aloof, even haughty. However, I’ve come around to the character because there’s a lot more to her than is readily apparent.

Jean Marais plays Avenant, the Beast, and the Prince, creating thematic links between the three characters.

In her introductory scene, Belle acts the archetypal Cinderella: dressed in rags, polishing the floor, protesting the ardent affections of Avenant. But even in this scene, as she defends her sisters from Avenant’s barbed comments and claims her father is her sole priority, there is a coyness to her interaction with Avenant, a slight flirtatiousness– of course, that flirtiness evaporates the moment Avenant decides to act like a caveman (dare we say, like a beast?), but it does imply Belle desires something beyond a life of household chores and somber filial duty.

But Belle does not totally subvert our expectations until she’s in the enchanted castle. At first terrified of the Beast, she quickly learns he means her no harm after he carries her to a sumptuous bedchamber and leaves her in peace. Courteous despite his hairy face and compulsive need to hunt, the Beast is the inverse of the handsome but aggressive Avenant. However, Belle’s attitude towards the Beast is just as complex as it is towards her human suitor. Despite claiming “I would never wish you the slightest harm,” Belle can be blunt and callous. For example, though she is aware of the Beast’s self-loathing, she calls him “an animal” when stroking him like a cat.

Though Belle denies any deeper feelings for the Beast, her attraction towards him is palpable. Roger Ebert famously observed how she “toys with a knife that is more than a knife” when rejecting the Beast’s first dinnertime marriage proposal. Later, she takes sensual delight in having him drink water from her bare hands. These scenes flaunt Belle’s erotic power over the Beast, complicating the idea that this is some Stockholm Syndrome fantasy. If anything, it is a power fantasy, with Belle becoming the imperious mistress she refuses to be in her own home. Even the scene where the Beast appears at Belle’s threshold, shirt undone and hands smoking with blood, every bit a virile force, Belle is the one who holds the power, cowering the Beast with a fierce look as she demands he clean himself up.

Unlike the Disney film, in which Belle’s love creates both inner and outer change in the Beast, the Cocteau film transforms both of the lovers. Belle returns to the dying Beast, tearfully confessing that “I am the monster” in failing to keep her promise to return to him. The Beast then transforms into a handsome prince– though that description is debatable if you aren’t fond of ruffled collars.

Happily ever after or a downgrade?

What are we to make of this transformation? The former Beast seems content enough (no more worries about shedding), but Belle is definitely conflicted. She’s astonished by this miracle and acts a bit coquettish when speaking with the prince, just as she did with Avenant earlier. However, disappointment is palpable when she confesses she will have to get used to the prince, who must seem all too ordinary compared to the magnificent Beast.

Some have taken this ending to be a true downer. Greta Garbo (or Marlene Dietrich, depending on what version of his apocryphal story you hear) famously wailed, “Give me back my Beast!” as she exited the theater. Cocteau himself forecasted a painfully ordinary happily ever after for Belle, in which she could only look forward to bearing children.

Maybe I’m more of a cautious optimist, but it’s hard for me to read the ending as THAT bleak, despite Cocteau’s intentions. The conclusion is undoubtedly bittersweet because the Beast was so majestic compared to the prince (but in the movies, isn’t suffering always more majestic than bedazzled bliss?), but that last image of the lovers ascending into the clouds is hardly a gloomy one and the triumphant music does not suggest a future of endless diaper changes and domestic squabbling. Whatever “ever after” these two encounter, it isn’t going to be as simple as “they lived happily ever after” or “and then they were miserable, life sucks doesn’t it?” From the start, nothing in this movie was that simple, so why should the ending be?

To wrap it up, La Belle et la Bete is a film I can return to again and again because that quiet, seductive magic humming in every gorgeous black-and-white frame has never died out for me. I have a sneaking suspicion that I will never wholly “get” this movie, for all my ruminations on the psychology of the characters or the nature of the magic. And to be honest, in a world where a great many movies are so simple as to barely make an impression beyond their runtime, that’s a wonderful, wonderful quality to have.

* Let it be known that if it sounds like I’m dumping on the Disney film, that is not at all my intention. The 1991 Disney film is a favorite of mine as well– my second favorite movie version of the story, actually. Now the 2017 remake– that abomination is another deal.

Sources:

Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale by Betsy Hearne

https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1928-beauty-and-the-beast-dark-magic

The Fairest One of All: The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by JB Kaufman

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-beauty-and-the-beast-1946

http://www.thecinessential.com/beauty-and-the-beast-yearning-for-the-beast

Donkey Skin (dir. Jacques Demy, 1970)

DONKEY-SKIN_MAIN702

Considering the central conflict of the story involves a young woman fleeing the incestuous advances of her father, Donkey Skin is not the sort of fairy tale which you’ll see Disney adapting any time soon. French filmmaker Jacques Demy filmed the tale as a musical in 1970 with Catherine Deneuve and Jean Marais as the father/daughter and potential husband/wife. Though a hit when released, it has fallen by the wayside as of late, which is a shame. It may not be a perfect film, but it is quite interesting in how it both clasps fast to and subverts fairy tale conventions.

For those unaware of the original story, it starts with the death of a beautiful queen. Before passing away, she makes her husband the king (Jean Marais) swear to never remarry until he can find a woman more lovely than she. After burying his beloved wife, the king searches throughout the lands but all of the princesses are too homely, unpleasant, or stupid for his taste. Asking himself “where have all the fairy tale princesses gone,” the king is ready to give up when one of his desperate advisors has him observe one more potential bride. She is not only more beautiful than the deceased queen, she is also much more clever and charming. The king is smitten and wants the young lady right away.

The catch: she’s his daughter, played by the radiant Catherine Deneuve.

This fact does not deter the king, who proceeds with proposing to his own child. The girl is horrified, but he swears to make her his, no matter what. Confused by the nature of her formerly distant father’s affections, the princess rushes to her fairy godmother (Delphine Seyrig) for advice. The fairy godmother advises her against the marriage, not due to any moral reason, but because marrying one’s parent simply isn’t done by proper civilized people! Plus, she has eyes for the king herself. When her suggestions of giving the king impossible demands to fulfill fail to be impossible, she has the princess request that the kingdom’s prize donkey, which magically excretes gold, be slaughtered and skinned before she agrees to marry the king. Once the reluctant monarch complies, her fairy godmother smothers the princess’s delicate face with ashes and has her dress in the skin before running off to live in the woods and earn her keep as a despised scullery maid in a neighboring kingdom. Of course, a handsome prince (Jacques Perrin) comes her way and the princess is restored to her true position and reconciliation with her father… though Demy’s version leaves the audience wondering if the princess is going to be content with a traditional happily ever after.

Fairy godmother or wicked stepmother?

Fairy godmother or wicked stepmother?

Demy’s Donkey Skin is a strange movie, a kind of hybrid of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, no surprise considering these two films were cited as inspirations. Donkey Skin can easily be read as a New Wave homage to the Cocteau film with its casting of Jean Marais as the king; he wears an imposing costume much like the Beast’s and acts as an object of transgressive desire for the princess, much like the Beast did for Belle. It also apes the sequence where Belle first enters the enchanted castle, running through the corridors in slow-motion: here, the princess runs in slow-mo through her forest exile. Of course, the later film feels much lighter than its spiritual ancestor, with a swinging soundtrack and buoyant musical numbers. The fact that this is a color film also makes Donkey Skin frothier. The color palette is reminiscent of watercolor paint, harkening back to the similar look of Disney’s Snow White.

Though Cocteau and Disney are major influences on Donkey Skin, Deneuve’s princess is a different beast from the heroines of either Beauty and the Beast or Snow White. She is less austere and remote than Josette Day’s Belle, nor is she as chipper and optimistic as Adriana Caselotti’s soprano-voiced Snow White. Girlish and radiant in her billowing gowns, Deneuve is the true image of a fairy tale heroine, undergoing ridicule and poverty as she struggles to her reward. But as Anne E. Duggan points out in her essay for the film’s Criterion Collection release, Deneuve’s princess has a great deal more agency than her literary counterpart, subverting Mulvey’s male gaze by looking upon the prince with desire voyeuristically.

Unlike the Perrault original, Demy suggests the king's incestuous desire may be reciprocated.

Unlike the Perrault original, Demy suggests the king’s incestuous desire may be reciprocated.

On the whole, Donkey Skin tells the story without any major revisions, but this adaptation also manages to be subversive in its own understated way. The princess is not entirely put off by the idea of marrying (and thereby sharing a bed with) her father. The fairy godmother is not a benevolent figure; she views the younger princess as a rival and takes an almost sadistic delight in mussing her beauty up before sending her off into hiding, which makes her seem like a cross between fairy helper and wicked stepmother. And the ending is not at all unambiguously joyful; once she learns her fairy godmother has wed the king, the princess looks sullen, suddenly dissatisfied (the fairy whispers, “Do try to look happy, dear.”). Perhaps a lifetime married to the boyish prince is too conventional for her? His boyish earnestness does seem sexually pallid when compared to the king’s towering (ie phallic) figure.

A decent number of viewers are unimpressed with Donkey Skin nowadays, finding it rather weak. It isn’t a stone cold masterpiece like Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and not having viewed much of Demy’s oeuvre, I cannot say how it ranks in his body of work (considering the only other film of his I’ve seen is Lady Oscar, Donkey Skin is the best for me as of yet). But as far as fairy tale cinema goes, it ranks among my personal favorites. Combined with the fabulous costumes and lovely Michel Legrand score, its peculiar blend of surrealism, satire, and sincerity hits my cinematic sweet spot.

More Deneuve in said billowing gowns.

More Deneuve in said billowing gowns.

The Wonderful World of Puss ‘n Boots (dir. Kimio Yabuki, 1969)

pussboots9

While Toei Doga is not a household name amongst most filmgoers, they were an important part of the history of Japanese animation, most notably a training ground for Studio Ghibli founders and internationally acclaimed filmmakers Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. Toei produced the first color feature length animated movie in Japan, The Legend of the White Serpent, and from then on, strove to distinguish itself as the Disney of the East with similarly lavish features throughout the remainder of the 1950s and into the early 1970s. While Takahata’s revolutionary directorial debut Horus, Prince of the Sun is considered the crowning achievement of Toei’s golden age, my personal favorite is its immediate successor, The Wonderful World of Puss ‘n Boots. Certainly a palate-cleanser after the gritty darkness and hellish three-year production of Horus, Puss ‘n Boots is a light-hearted adventure with a great heaping of slapstick and romance. It would go on to be considered a classic in its home country, a pinnacle of animated comedy.

Swashbuckling feline in boots Pero (Susumu Ishikawa) has been condemned to death by an all-cat council for sparing the life of a rodent, but before the sentence can be carried out, he manages to escape in true Errol Flynn-fashion. Pursued by a trio of feline assassins, Pero comes across Pierre (Toshiko Fujita), a young human boy whose cruel brothers have cast him out of his home. The two outcasts strike up a friendship, traveling to a nearby kingdom where the sovereign is looking to marry off his beautiful daughter, Princess Rose (Rumi Sakakibara). Pierre is smitten at first sight, but his peasant status renders him ineligible for Rose’s hand. Pero, wanting his new friend to be happy, starts to cook up a matchmaking scheme.

Meanwhile, the princess is not happy with her potential suitors, all of whom are rather foppish and foolish. Matters get worse when the last suitor appears in a demonic whirlwind: it’s the devil himself, Lucifer, the lovelorn prince of darkness (Asao Koike). When jewels and power do not sway Rose, Lucifer threatens to level her kingdom should she not agree to be his bride in three days. Luckily for Rose and Pierre, Pero has come up with a plan to make both happy: he passes Pierre off as a duke and swears to the king that not only is Pierre an eligible suitor, but he’s also going to stop Lucifer. Of course, the road to love and victory is not entirely smooth, what with Pierre’s discomfort with the elaborate lie, especially as he and Rose fall harder for each other every passing moment, and the aforementioned assassin trio after Pero at every turn.

pussboots8

There is a great deal of Disney influence in several of the 1950s/1960s Toei films, and Puss n’ Boots is no exception. The watercolor illustration style of the backgrounds, musical numbers, and plethora of animal side characters are quite reminiscent of the early Disney features such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In fact, one of the cat assassins is more than reminiscent of Dopey with his floppy sleeves and position as the runt of the group, and the first stage of the climax, where Lucifer uses his powers to transform into different animals, brings to mind the celebrated wizards duel in Disney’s Sword in the Stone.

And yet, even though there is a great deal of Disney in this film, Puss n’ Boots, in addition to the other Toei films of the period, exhibit a charm that is all their own. Puss ‘n Boots is at its heart a zany comedy, filled to the brim with chases and slapstick in the vein of Chuck Jones; later Disney comedies such as Aladdin and The Emperor’s New Groove are a lot like Puss ‘n Boots with their fast paces and goofy moments. The highlight of the picture is its dizzying castle chase climax, an explosion of hilarity and tension with lots of Looney Tunes and even a little Hitchcock thrown in for good measure. A young Hayao Miyazaki was one of the key animators in this sequence; the similarity of this climax to the clock tower chase at the end of Miyazaki’s 1979 feature debut Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro makes one wonder if he had Puss ‘n Boots at the back of his mind ten years later.

pussboots2

As you can expect from the title, Pero is the star of the show. Clever, witty, mischievous, and resourceful, in addition to having an adorable design, he would go on to become the mascot of Toei and feature in two sequels, though from what I have read, neither one was as successful commercially or artistically as the original. Nevertheless, Pero is a fun character, the true hero of the film.

The other highlight of the film is its villain. Lucifer is a great example of comic villainy, very much in the tradition of Pegleg Pete or Bluto: he can be quite funny when he’s mooning after Rose or whining like a petulant child, but the film never makes you forget his innate evil, especially toward the end. And then, there’s Pierre and Rose, the young lovers around whom much of the plot centers, and while they may be the least interesting members of the cast, they could have been much blander. Pierre in particular reminds me a little of Buster Keaton, with his sleepy eyes and the way he bursts into wild action for the sake of the girl he loves. And I would be lying if I claimed I did not enjoy some of the romantic interludes: Rose’s balcony ballad about her lost happiness is the finest song in the picture and Pierre’s confession of his peasant status to Rose in the garden is sweet, but kept from sinking into mawkishness by Pero’s conducting a choir of singing mice, providing a diegetic soundtrack for the lovers.

pussboots17

How I wish the Toei features were more well-known by animation fans in the States! If any of their films were a gateway drug into this period of Japanese animation, then Puss ‘n Boots would be an excellent candidate, along with the more serious Horus. The Wonderful World of Puss ‘n Boots was given a good DVD release courtesy of Discotek Media, complete with the vintage English dub as a bonus. Unfortunately, it has since gone out of print; however, I snagged a used copy for about thirty bucks last summer. A little pricey for a disc with next to no bonus material, but well worth the investment. While you’re at it, pick up the new DVD release of Horus, Prince of the Sun, which does happen to come with a wealth of insightful bonus features—we need to encourage more Toei releases out of Discotek!

Anyways, since there seems to be so few images of this film on the internet, enjoy some screenshots:

pussboots10

pussboots13

pussboots16

pussboots3

pussboots20