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.
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.
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.
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.
Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale by Betsy Hearne
The Fairest One of All: The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by JB Kaufman