One the most loved films of all time and the most eerily beautiful fairy tale ever brought to life on film, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (France, 1946) is the quintessential fairy tale for grown-ups.
Just compare Walt Disney’s bright, bouncy musical with Cocteau’s surreal take. Where singing candelabras and teapots light up the palace for Disney’s plucky heroine, living statues and human-arm candleholders and eerie magical doors that creak open as if worked by ghostly sentinels fill Cocteau’s shadowy enchanted castle. The B&W photography by Henri Alekan shimmers, and the eerie imagery (created entirely in camera) creates a texture of visual poetry and cinema magic never been equaled in the years of fairy tale cinema since.
It’s a weirdly spooky prison for the self-sacrificing Belle (Josette Day), the naïve, instinctually pure-hearted Beauty of the tale. Even stranger is the decidedly animal attraction of the ferocious, seductive and tragic Beast (a growling, glaring, elegantly hirsute Jean Marais). Marais, Cocteau’s partner and Muse, creates a surly, self-loathing Beast, his handsome face hidden under layers of fur and fangs and his body a model of ferocious majesty.
The primal tension is not lost on Cocteau—when the curse is broken and the beast reverts to smug human form (Jean Marais sans fur), the audience’s disappointment is echoed by Belle. She sighs at the loss of her feral lover before taking the hand of her far less exciting Prince Charming.
Black and white, in French with English subtitles
Also available on DVD and Blu-ray in a deluxe Criterion edition and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Beauty and the Beast (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Beauty and the Beast (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray features the 1995 restoration by the Centre National de l’Audioviseul of Belgium and features the supplements of Criterion’s DVD special edition. Audio options include two commentary tracks (one by film historian Arthur Knight, the other by writer and cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling) and an optional track featuring the original opera written for the film by Philip Glass.
A marvelous collection of supplements have been collected in a section called “Once Upon a Time…,” notably the 26 minute documentary “Screening at the Majestic” directed by Yves Kovacs in 1995 to spotlight the restoration, and featuring interviews with cinematographer Henri Alekan and stars Jean Marais and Josette Day, who recall the film and the director with a fondness. They have all aged so much and so has the world, as Kovacs suggests with shots of the locations as they look today, overgrown and a little wild, intercut with the original images. Also features archival interviews with Alekan and make-up artist Hagop Arakelian, a brief piece on the film restoration, a gallery of rare behind-the-scenes and publicity stills, the original 1945 trailer narrated by Cocteau and the 1995 restoration trailer, and an accompanying booklet with an essay by Francis Steegmuller.