La Belle et la Bête: part III

Part I and and Part II of my La Belle et la Bête posts may be found

HERE and HERE

Part III

In Cocteau’s Words

We need look no further than the director’s account for insights into how La Belle et la Bête was brought to the screen. Cocteau’s Diary of a film was published in 1950, in a translation by Ronald Duncan. It’s far from what we might expect today, when ‘the making of’ generally amounts to a puff-piece tacked onto a dvd as a promotional exercise.

Above: the cast on location at Moulin de Touvois á Rochecorbon in Touraine, the small ‘manor’ that Cocteau chose  for the exteriors of Beauty’s home. From left to right, Josette Day, Marcel André, Nane Germon, Michel Auclair, Jean Marais and Mila Parely.

Cocteau’s diary is an evocative, no-holds-barred account of the sometimes agonising process of dragging his vision into the world. He praises his actors, though complains bitterly when any of the production team let him down. The makeup man particularly draws his wrath, though he’s critical of his cameraman too. The technicians and electricians, by contrast, win his praise, and one senses that Cocteau admired the craftsmanship of those who carried out rough work with skill and speed.

Above: Cocteau with his crew for La Belle et la Bête

The tone in the diary is frequently one of self-pity, and Cocteau dwells at interminable length on his various illnesses, which in all fairness appear to have been legion during the shooting schedule. (His disorders include chronic eczema, jaundice, gum disease and a carbuncle on his neck.) Given the time he spent in clinics and hospitals, it’s a wonder the film was completed at all. Nor was he alone in having health problems. Jean Marais too suffered from a particularly nasty carbuncle on his inner thigh, which impeded his work and needed lancing and subsequent bed-rest. Mila Parely, who was playing Beauty’s sister Adélaide, fell from Aramis, the horse that both Beauty and Avenant ride in the film. The accident hospitalised her and thereafter left the actress in discomfort for much of her shooting.

Above: Beauty, played by Josette Day, attends her sister Adélaide, played by Mila Parely

In the aftermath of the war, making any film in what had until recently been an occupied country was always going to be fraught with difficulties, let alone a period film requiring hard-to-find resources of textiles for the luxurious costumes. Film stock was hard to come by and of variable quality. The laboratory scratched the negatives, compromising hard-won footage while denying any culpability. Not enough bed-linen could be found for the scenes of the laundry being hung out to dry at Rochecorbon. Bad weather hampered the location work, or made shots difficult to match. Nevertheless the key members of the production team were inventive and resourceful, and as a director Cocteau was at his most creative when having to improvise with limited means. Even by todays standards, the film looks ravishing. To close this three-part post on La Belle et la Bête, here are some extracts from Cocteau’s diary.

Cocteau on Christian Bérard and costume:

Sunday the 26th August, 1945

“Watching Christian Bérard at work is an extraordinary sight. At Paquin’s, surrounded by tulle and ostrich feathers, smeared with charcoal, covered with perspiration and spots, his beard on fire, his shirt hanging out, he gives to luxury a profound significance.”

Above: the vain sisters Adélaide and Félicie, elaborately costumed by Bérard. Cocteau was particularly pleased with Mila Parely’s ornately dressed wig.

Below: Nane Germon as Félicie, more soberly attired.

“Between his small ink-stained hands, the costumes cease to be mere props and take on the arrogant actuality of fashion. He makes us realize that a period dress is not merely a costume but a fashion which belonged to a period and changed with it. People dressed by Bérard look as though they lived at a place, in a definite period, and not as though they were going to a fancy dress ball.”

Above: Christian Bérard

“I saw the dresses this morning in the farmyard at Rochercorbon where I am shooting. They were hanging in the sun, side by side, like Bluebeard’s wives, only lifeless. They lacked their souls, and the soul of a dress is a body.”

Cocteau on the set for Beauty’s bedroom:

Saturday the 15th December 1945

“I’ve never seen a set either in the theatre or in films to appeal as much to me as this one of Beauty’s room where I am working now. The studio hands like it too. Even the waitresses from the restaurant come and see it and are thrilled to pieces.

I’d like to hear this room described by Edgar Allen Poe; for it is, as it were, isolated in space with the remnants of the forest set on one side, and the beginnings of the stream set on the other. With the result that bushes can be seen through its walls of net, suggesting a whole incomprehensible landscape behind it. Its carpet is of grass and its furniture in the magnificent bad taste of Gustave Doré.”

“Have placed the living statues in niches on both sides of the door and given them a little box hedge and hung the candelabra which are held by plastered arms outside behind transparent walls. It looks magnificent in the pale beams of the arc even though they do hurt my eyes.”

Cocteau on Rochecorbon:

Sunday the 6th August 1945

“We very nearly didn’t bother to get out of the car. Then all at once I recognized, down to the smallest detail, the exact setting that I had become resigned to having to build. The man who lived there looked exactly like the merchant in the story, and his son said to me: ‘If you had come yesterday you would have heard your own voice. I was playing your poetry records over to my father.’ On top of this the iron rings for tethering the horses are made in the shape of some fabulous beast. Here are the windows for the wicked sisters, doors and staircase, wash-house, orchard, stables, dog-kennel, watering cans, tomatoes ripening on the windowsills, vegetables, firewood, the spring, the chicken-run, the ladders! Everything is already there, and what’s more, the interior is as good as the exterior, and this hidden quality shines through the walls.”

Above: on location at Rochecorbon

Cocteau on the ‘living statues’:

Friday the 30th November 1945

“The kids who play the stone heads are incredibly patient. For they’ve got the most uncomfortable positions, having to kneel behind the set with their shoulders fixed in a sort of armour of plastic and resting their hair which is all gummed and be-powdered against the pillar with the arc lamps full in their faces. The effect is so intensely magical that I wonder if the camera can possibly get it. These heads are alive, they look, they breathe smoke from their nostrils, they turn following the artists who are unaware they are being watched. Perhaps as objects which surround us behave, taking advantage of the fact we believe them to be immobile.”

Saturday the 22nd December

“I suffered so much from my inflammation and toothache on the night before last that I couldn’t control myself any more, and went all to pieces and was quite unable to direct properly. The living statues fainted in their plaster shells. They were carried into the air where they came to and insisted on being made up again; whereupon they returned and fainted a second time. I got back to the Hôtel du Louvre in the morning only to find that I’d been shifted to a miserable room next to a telephone booth where people shout all the time. Can’t sleep a wink.”

Above: Apotheosis. Beauty and her Beast-transformed-into-a-Prince, ascend like Olympian consorts on billowing clouds.

Cocteau at the conclusion of his work:

Saturday the 1st June, 1946

“Decided to quit as soon as the film was finished. And it was yesterday I showed it for the first time to the studio technicians at Joinville.

Its announcement, written on a blackboard, caused quite a stir at Saint-Maurice. They had filled up quite a theatre with benches and chairs. Lacombe had even postponed his shooting so that his unit and artists could attend.

At 6.30 Marlene Dietrich was seated beside me. I tried to say a few words, but the accumulation of all those minutes which had led to this one moment quite paralysed me and I was almost incapable of speech. I sat watching the film, holding Marlene’s hand, crushing it without noticing what I was doing. The film unwound and sparkled like a far-off star – something apart and insensible to me. For it had killed me. It now rejected me and lived its own life. And the only thing I could see in it were the memories of the suffering which were attached to every foot. I couldn’t believe the others would even be able to follow its story> I felt they too would become involved in these activities of my imagination.

But the reception of the audience of technicians was quite unforgettable. And that was my reward. Whatever happens, I shall never get such a touching reception as I did from this little village whose industry is the canning of dreams.”

Part I and Part II of my La Belle et la Bête posts may be found

HERE and HERE

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

  1. Good Morning, Well presented review of a more than beautifully crafted film by Cocteau and his crew, a set piece that reminded me of illuminated manuscripts pages. That is as if Cocteau tore a page from a period work in a manuscript. Perhaps I saw the film as a look into a very complex mind of man who looked backward in time and designed a setting, scenes, costumes, lighting, camera technique, so much more of a unusual artist. I read the book of Cocteau’s diary he seemed wrapped up in his love of Marais and the world of film.

    Have you watched the film of Werner Fassbinder? The Fox? A book or two on his life and particularly his childhood – parents – tended to create a child with ability to draw a work of art through cinema. His end of course was upsetting, could he not live with his choice of work and love? Where in the course of his life did he become disillusioned as if haunted by some ghosts that constantly plagued him?

    In some ways Cocteau and Fassbinder were similar in art different presentation and effects – periods – characters drawn into a story on film – extraordinary men. The work produced in film by Cocteau and Fassbinder amazed me. So many years ago and now looking at the review of yours on Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, I agree with your view of the Disney film and quite dislike the trailers offered, and the movie too technical and expensive.

    The director and producer of the film by the Disney Corporation made a big mistake in selecting Luke Evans as Gaston, Evans stole the film from the actor playing the Beast. Luke Evans is a future actor who will get more parts I hope, since he is one artist actor who views his work beyond the money or the work, he becomes his character, understands how to offer the most elegant side of the persona.

    Oh well, this is not the type of writing or insight your bloggers or you feel rates reading. I am old and watching death before me of my husband, beauty in death? atk

    • God morning, Annette. Many thanks for your kind words about my celebration of this masterwork. You’ve raised so many issues that I’d like to respond to, and I shall, But it cannot be today as I’m against a deadline and must work non-stop to meet it. I will return later to discuss further. I like the connection you’ve made to Fassbinder.

    • Still tinkering with it. Every time I think I’m done I find another exciting image to include. Found a fantastic shot of Marais and his dog to add to the second post. (Apparently the dog served as an inspiration to Marais and the wigmaker creating the Beast’s mask.)

    • Thank you Jacqui. This has been a bit of a marathon of research and compilation, but I wanted to express my appreciation for a film that helped shape my creative life. All these people are as familiar to me as long-time friends, and this seemed the very least I could do to thank them for what they made.

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