I can imagine few sharing this belief with me, but I am loving the surplus of fairy tale adaptations being rushed to cinema. You can understandably call it overkill to release three separate Snow White films in the same year, though as my counterargument, can you really say there’s not an adaptation out there for you now? Whether it’s the dour actioner Snow White and the Huntsman, lively and looney Mirror Mirror, Spain’s (sadly unsuccessful) Oscar entry Blancanieves, or Disney’s original animated representation of it, there’s surely a version out there for everyone.
If it were a novel adaptation it would certainly risk banally retreading familiar ground. Even in the loose world of comic adaptations, The Amazing Spider-Man was entirely incapable of finding a new way to show the origin story. If you’re looking for concise reasons that fairy tales fare so fair (5x fast), it may be that they are simplified to bare essentials and often do not hold one concrete version of events. Especially in terms of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, these stories have been told in vastly different shades, which lends itself quite well to multiple feature adaptations.
Beauty and the Beast has been particularly mined as of recent, though sadly as teen pop obsession. CBSFilms’ Beastly, The CW’s television series, and another series on the way from ABC represent a medium that’s desperately trying to turn the love story on to young audiences. More than most such tales, however, Beauty and the Beast lends itself strongly towards a Gothic aesthetic. In the first minutes of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation La Belle et la Bete, which I had the pleasure of recently seeing in pristine 35mm, we see the credits etched onto a chalk board, establishing both a child’s fascination with the story, but also a brittleness about this tale.
I could be excused for being worried early on, since Cocteau breaks the golden rule in order to explicitly ask the audience to suspend their disbelief and view the film as innocently as a child would. Infantile a viewer as I am, I vaguely wanted to prove him wrong just to spite him. Yes, I wanted to embarrass a classic filmmaker who’s been dead for 49 years. What of it? Sidestepping the infantile, I had an honest worry about the way the film was set up. Between the irritating evil sisters, the scoundrel Avenant, and a general vagueness about titular Belle, perhaps it wouldn’t be so hard to be disappointed.
Thankfully, for both myself and Cocteau, those discomforts are tabled the moment we enter the strange. Though Tarsem Singh recently dabbled in fairy tale, Cocteau’s representation of the mansion had me recalling Immortals more than Mirror Mirror. While there’s an extravagance to everything in the Beast’s domain, there’s a tint of disturbia splashed onto every wall, table, and decoration. Dismembered, or at least unembodied, hands carrying the torches and pouring the wine build an eerier atmosphere than you’d expect them to, all leading up to the crucially startling reveal of the Beast himself.
Many other adaptations are too on the spot in their humanizing of the Beast, but Cocteau never tries to make him seem like anything less than a monster, at least at first. The roughly textured makeup upon Jean Marais aids much to the revolting demeanor, but the crucial stab of this creature is Marais’ piercing tenor voice. In that tone rests all the pain he’s capable of inflicting, but also that which he’s likely endured. What makes him a crucial counterbalance to the film is how he unexpectedly works to humanize Belle, whose refusal of any romantic advances – be it for an excusable reason as tending to her loving father – make her almost irritatingly inaccessible.
Like the film, Belle comes to full life at the mansion and her own cruelty and kindness is painted across the film’s remainder. Hers is not an absolutely pure beauty, other than of the physical sort of course. As the Beast becomes a tortured thing suffering humiliatingly from his animalistic tendencies, she starts to soften to the inequities of others, including her rude sisters who trick her into inflicting pain upon those she loves. Cocteau manages the visual task of this film superbly, representing everything on the outside as it is on the inside. As Belle flourishes in inner beauty, so does her apparel. The diamonds that bedazzle hers and the Beast’s clothes seem to burden them more than give them class, though perhaps a clever combination of the two. Even a mirror reveals the truth of people’s ugliness on the inside in a particularly hilarious scene with the sisters.
What has me most contemplative about the film is its teasingly ambiguous ending. It fulfills the mystery of how the Beast became this way, as well as yielding a repugnant character with what’s been coming to him. Though how the Beast ends up does give the slightest pause for just how solid this love is. Can Belle still love a man who has done the deeds of a beast? It bares questions not to be answered, which linger after the film’s booming and gloriously terrifying final shot.
Bottom Line: Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast takes dazzling and disconcerting artistic values to representing beauty and ugliness. An extravagant piece of pure craftsmanship.