Reinventing Beauty

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Yesterday I talked to the students at Hereford College of Arts about my work making a book in ‘homage’ to Jean Cocteau’s film, La Belle et la Bête, a dream project I’m collaborating on with my friend Joe Pearson at Design for Today.

 

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I can quite see that it’s a strange notion to attempt a picture book about another artist’s creation originally made in the form of a film. There are many visual reinventions that are required in order to successfully carry off the trick, especially as my intention has never been to make a scene-by-scene ‘copy’ of the film. I think of what I’m producing as a translation. I’m working to translate, rather than reproduce the actors’ iconic screen appearances into what will work in illustration terms, and the same process is being undertaken with the film’s studio sets and the locations. The canvas, plaster and gauze spaces of the Beast’s chambers, passageways and balconies that the actors performed on, are opening up in my imagination as I transport myself into their world, just as Cocteau described the experience of walking through the constructed rooms in his published Diary of a Film.

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.”

 

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I’m working in colour, which Cocteau wanted to do but was unable to afford in those harsh, post-war days when the French film industry was on its knees in the wake of the Occupation. He describes in his diary the sky blue of Belle’s sumptuous satin gown, worn by Josette Day in the farm garden when Belle returns home, and how beautiful the colour was against the white bed-sheets hanging out to dry, with the black hens scattering in front of her.

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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.

The fact is that there have been echoes of La Belle et la Bête in much of my work of the last decade. Leonine creatures have appeared in many of my works, and always in them the combination of rage, anguish and yearning that hallmark Jean Marais’ performance as la Bête.

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In the first of a new series of prints titled New Folktales that I’m making with Dan Bugg at Penfold Press, the recurring themes of beauty and beastliness are apparent in both the title and the image of The Tiger’s Bride.

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Above: preparatory drawing for The Tiger’s Bride.

And even in my recent cover for These Our Monsters I can see that I’m toying with ideas for the Beast’s garden, setting serpentine stems and muted, nighttime colours against a velvety black.

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Josette Day and Jean Marais haunt me at the drawing-board and in my dreams. I make and unmake them over and over as I strive to capture an essence of their stateliness and beauty.

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Above: maquettes made preparatory to illustrating the book.

I see the book as being like a bottle of perfume that you unstopper in order to inhale something rich and dark. It’s a fight, but every time I make a small progress, it feels like triumph.

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10 thoughts on “Reinventing Beauty

  1. What beautiful writing.
    I really appreciated the backstory about Cocteau and Jean Marais, and your speculation about the significance and intent of the director’s designs for the ending.

  2. Love this , Clive. I could never stand Jean Marais, so I never saw the film. Now I look forward to your “translation” of it. Your Lions, your Tigers, and your Dragons are such creatures of beauty and strength, that I very much doubt Jean Marais, no matter how disguised, could ever be a match for any “Monster” of yours.

    But, I promise to watch the film, once our book in homage of it is out, and I have it at home, and I can compare your book to the film.
    I loved the Beauty and The Beast Walt Disney film, except the part when the Beast became a prince. It was such a come down.

    Love from Madrid

    • Maria, one of the things Cocteau is most criticised for in the film, is the end transformation of the noble Beast into an undoubtedly over-primped, chocolate-box Prince. It IS incredibly jarring. But such is Josette Day’s skill that she makes us feel Beauty’s discomfort with the change, tempered with caution and diplomacy. All of a sudden we are in not in a realm of fairy-tale, where romance is heart-stoppingly glorious, and how you fall in love – and with who – can be complicated and dark. In the ‘real’ world, disappointments must be endured, compromises accepted and business agreements brokered. Marriage is a contract. Although the promise of a fairy tale ending is what we expect in La Belle et la Bête, the story as presented in the film turns out no better than those packaged and sold to us by news agencies. A commoner-turned-princess named Diana didn’t live happily ever after with her Prince, but was cast aside by him, stripped of her title and died shortly afterwards while fleeing from the journalists who’d made her ‘royal’ life a misery. Before her a Hollywood star named Grace had likewise transformed into a not particularly happy princess-by-marriage, only to end her ‘fairytale’ life behind the steering wheel of a speeding car in Monaco. Meghan took her royal husband and abandoned ship, heading back to the US to save marriage and family. It seems that modern, headstrong, romantic women who get transformed into princesses, don’t always fare well.

      I walked out of the cinema as a child, horrified by the end of the film. But later, I realised it as far more truthful an account than had Cocteau continued an illusion of romance beyond the cut-off point of the magic. How could any reality measure up to the darkling, traumatised, anguished man-transformed-into beast that Beauty has been imprisoned by? The magic can only exist in the enchanted Prince’s enforced, hermetic world of suffering and loss. She loves him because of what he is, not because of what he’s about to become. The moment the spell is broken and he’s ready to whisk her away to his true kingdom, where he’ll be restored to power and daily duties and she will be doomed to play the consort, then every last glimmer of magic vanishes.

      Cocteau ‘made’ Marais into a film star. He picked up a raw, sexy drama student, took him as his lover and transformed him with wealth and privilege into a sophisticated, much admired matinee idol. I wonder at which point he looked at his artful, fashion plate of a creation and thought ‘Where has that rough and sexy boy gone?’ So now when I see the film, I wonder whether Cocteau’s is the disappointment behind Beauty’s eyes when she sees her vain Prince in pantomime sequins and pantaloons, his hair too organised and his smile practiced and lacquered. And I even wonder whether Marais’ frightful appearance in those final moments of the film, was Cocteau’s revenge on his lover for not continuing to be what he’d started out as at the beginning of their adventure together. Certainly for me as a boy who’d spent the entire film falling in love with the Beast, the end of it was a shocking awakening to the artifice I’d been blind to until that moment, so plausibly had Cocteau conjured real magic.

      • This text of yours is just what I needed, to be able to come to terms with the no-longer-a-beast Prince, and with the, for me, quite obvious disappointment of Belle at the transformation.
        I can’t wait for your book, and I have ordered the film from Amazon, to watch it as a companion to the book.
        Thank you ever so much.
        Love fom Madrid, for you both, and for all your friends at The Artlog

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