La Belle et la Bête: part II

Beauty into Beast

Above: Marais and Cocteau on the Cote d’ Azur in 1939

Below: Six years later, Marais becomes Cocteau’s Beast

Cocteau came across the young actor in 1937 when working with the student cast of his play Oedipe-Roi at a Paris acting school, and though the artist was thirty-eight and Marais just twenty-four, the two quickly became inseparable. Marais clearly benefited from the older man’s patronage, but the benefits flowed both ways, because the relationship also spurred Cocteau to greater creatively. As his protégé blossomed into a skilled and respected actor, so Cocteau rose to the challenge and created productions for stage and film on which the two collaborated with great success. They’d been together for nearly ten years when filming began on La Belle et la Bête, with Marais, by then renowned for his beauty, cast in the double role of Avenant and the Beast.

The make-up for the Beast was fairly revolutionary. In 1941 Hollywood, Jack P. Pierce had transformed Lon Caney Jnr into The Wolfman by gluing hair directly onto the actor’s face. But Marais and Cocteau came up with the idea of commissioning a wig-maker to produce a ventilated hair-piece to cover the face. This ‘mask’ proved light and flexible enough to allow the actor’s performance to show through, though Marais occasionally felt isolated behind it, and was fretful that the fangs he wore made his words unintelligible. In fact his vocal performance seems remarkably clear, and dubbing was not required.

In the photographs above, there’s the sense that Marais is applying the make-up himself, with the film’s make-up artist, Hagop Arakelian, assisting him. (Cocteau rants bitterly against Arakelian in his published diary, referring to him only as ‘A’, and complaining that the make-up man was disinterested in the filming process and took no pains with his work.) It would be usual for an actor to apply his own make-up in the theatre… and Marais was a theatre actor… but it seems unusual on a film. However, Cocteau’s account of the production process suggests that his team had far more the informal feel of a repertory company than would be found generally on film sets of the time.

In his autobiography, Mes Quatres Véités, Marais recalls that creating the Beast’s appearance began with a visit to the wig-maker, Monsieur Pontet, for discussions. There a life-cast was made of his face for a ‘lace’ foundation to be fitted over. He attributes the elderly wigmaker with coming up with the idea of three overlapping appliances. At no point is there any mention of a make-up ‘designer’, as there would be today. Marais’ dog, Moulouk, used to accompany him to fittings, and the wigmaker and actor drew inspiration from the animal’s colouring and shagginess.

Above: Marais and Moulouk

Once densely knotted with hair by M. Pontet, the three-piece mask was ready for filming. In the last photograph of the application process (see above) co-star Josette Day stands next to Jean Marais, and may even be helping him to complete his transformation as she looks at the effect in the out-of-shot mirror, because she appears to be holding a makeup pad.

Defining Beauty

Above: an almost unrecognisable Josette Day, early in her career

Josette Day was an experienced film actor by the time she came to play Beauty, having begun her professional career as a child of five. An early training in dance undoubtedly gave her a physical grace that was perfect for the role. There is an unusual simplicity in her playing, which combined with the luminosity of her face in close-up, becomes increasingly mesmerising as the story unfolds. Cocteau writes in his diary:

‘Josette’s grace and sensitive acting astonish me. My short lines suit her. I never have to take anything twice. As Beauty she has naivety, simplicity and just that suggestion of superiority, as though she has seen things her family have not even dreamt about. She dominates Ludovic, cherishes her father, but is not ashamed of them when she returns home. She has to say her line: ‘Who has done my washing?’ dressed in pearls, tulle, silk and gold, yet even so, she does not lose her simple manner.’

Below: the wonderfully strange scene in which Beauty passes through a wall and slides to the ground. The illusion was achieved with practical effects, and thus has a physical quality that I find far more compelling than most ‘digital magic’.

The diary reveals that Cocteau was somewhat at loggerheads with the cinematographer, Henri Alekan, who favoured a diffuse quality for the film, whereas Cocteau required clarity. But whatever arguments and dissatisfactions may have been raging over makeup and camerawork behind the scenes, on screen the serene Day never looks anything other than glorious, a shining testament to the ultimate collaboration of the filmmakers.

Together again

Josette Day and Jean Marais were teamed again by Cocteau in his 1948 film of Les Parents Terribles. (See images below.)

Part III follows soon

12 thoughts on “La Belle et la Bête: part II

  1. I still think my favorite scene might be when Beauty is at her father’s sickbed and her falling tears turn to gemstones when they drop to her hand. Well, that’s just one of a hundred favorite scenes… actually.
    ; )

  2. Pingback: La Belle et la Bête: part III | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  3. Marvellous stuff Clive, I have always been in love with this magical film, and I for one would buy your book of it! It would be more well informed and better written than many. Perhaps you will one day write it!
    If I don’t post, it doesn’t mean that I’m not reading and enjoying all you put up on this site! You’re a blooming’ marvel and no mistake Guv’norxxxxxx

    • Ha ha! You’ve come over all Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins!

      I’m so pleased you enjoy what you find here, Lorrie. No matter that you don’t always feel like commenting. It’s enough that you pop by. (-;

      C xxx

  4. I love this film, but I knew almost nothing about the making of it, so these posts have been wonderful to read. Looking forward to the next one.

    Oh, and that mask you mentioned in your other post really does look very like the beast. When I saw it the other day that was the first thing I thought of, and then I scrolled down a little and saw that you thought so too. How striking it is!

    • I’ve been meaning to blog about La Belle et la Bête at the Artlog for the longest time. It’s the film I love most. Like I said in Part I, I could write a book about it, though I can’t imagine many would buy it. Don’t think there’s much of a market for old geezers writing about old films!

      • What? From the one film class I took in uni I really got the impression that there were lots of old geezers doing well for themselves off of that very thing! Someone ought to tell this to all the pretty, starry-eyed students! ; ) Anyway, you’re no old geezer and I am happy that you are making things other than books, even though you’d surely do a good job of it.

        • Well that’s very dear of you, and much appreciated. Sometimes I feel like a very old geezer indeed, but it’s cheering to read you think otherwise.

          And talking of books, though I may not write them I am in the throes of making a cover for Marly Youman’s Glimmerglass (see HERE), with another new book of hers, Maze of Bloodlove that title… planned later this year.

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