La Belle et la Bête: part I

Above: credit sequence for La Belle et la Bête, playfully chalked onto a blackboard by the cast and director.

I could write a book extolling Jean Cocteau’s magnificent La Belle et la Bête, but must confine myself instead to a three-part paean of praise. For me it’s the almost perfect evocation of fairy tale, a genre much attempted in the cinema, yet never as effectively conjured as in this shimmering 1946 film, made in France under the most difficult circumstances just after the war.

Never has there been a Beauty that could touch the sculpted loveliness of Josette Day, and never a spell-struck Beast as magnificently passionate as this one, played with incomparable tragic grandeur by Cocteau’s lover, Jean Marais. The actor was painfully encased in a furred ‘mask’ that daily had to be glued to his skin, and perhaps some of the discomfort he endured added to the sense of a creature scorched by desires. (The Beast never eats in front of Beauty, but when she comes upon him unexpectedly in the aftermath of a kill, he’s literally smouldering, as though the man trapped inside him burns with shame.)

Above: hands stiff with glue, hair and talons, Marais was rendered too clumsy to handle a spoon. In his Beast’s make-up he had to rely on on co-star Josette Day to assist him at mealtimes.

Much of the credit for what’s seen on screen must be attributed to the designer, Christian Bérard. The weighty costumes he produced for the stars incalculably add to the lustre of the film. In his Diary of a Film published in 1950, Cocteau writes of Bérard:

“His costumes with their elegance, power and sumptuous simplicity play just as big a part as the dialogue. They are not merely decorations; they reinforce the slightest gesture, and the artists find them comfortable. What a pity it is that France cannot afford the luxury of colour films. The arrival of Beauty at the wash-house, wearing her grand sky-blue dress, surrounded by black chickens, was an absolute miracle.”

Marais makes an unforgettable sight with his leonine head framed by a high-standing collar. The wide-shouldered, inky velvet doublet seems barely to contain the bulky animal physique straining inside it. He walks upright, but there’s the sense that he does so painfully, clinging to the last vestiges of a humanity fast ebbing away. The arrival of Beauty arrests his transformation, because in her he sees everything that will be lost to him.

Against the Beast’s degeneration, Day is a lamp in the darkness, incandescent in voluptuous satin, gleaming roped pearls and the balloon sleeves that accentuate the creamy vulnerability of her throat and head.

Above: Christian Bérard’s design for decor and costumes suggests a corridor with billowing, gauzy curtains.

Below: the scene as it was realised, rendered dream-like by having the actress ‘glide’ on hidden wheels, an effect much loved and subsequently imitated by film-makers.

Berard’s chalk sketch (see above) for the decor of the Beast’s dining-room shows his innovative use of a ‘black void’ with accents of design. This stroke of genius produced a fantastical realm for the enchantment to unfold in (see below), yet on a tiny budget. Many film designers could learn from Berard’s example that lavishness on too great a scale merely creates visual muddle. The designer gave Cocteau only as much as was needed to conjure the magic for the camera, and no more. The eye never gets distracted or weary when watching La Belle et la Bête. We see what designer, director and cinematographer wanted us to see, and the rest is shadow.

In the Beast’s dining-room where Beauty’s father finds a table laid for supper, two ‘living’ stone heads supporting the fireplace mantel awaken, smoke coiling from their nostrils, an effect underlined by the trembling sheen of Georges Auric’s almost hallucinogenic score. My scalp prickles when I watch this, the moment never failing to thrill no matter the many times I’ve seen it. Everywhere in this castle, pale disembodied arms support candelabra, or rise up with pitchers from the table to charge goblets. The eyes of carved heads follow whoever passes. It’s eerily, unforgettably beautiful.

Above: Cocteau signs his credit sequence.

Part II follows tomorrow.

6 thoughts on “La Belle et la Bête: part I

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

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