I first saw Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête in the early 1960s. Before the age of video I recollected the film from that first, single viewing, for years running it over and over in my head, remembering, and very likely misremembering it, until the ‘video’ age dawned when everything could be acquired and watched at will. So for most of my life, one way or another, the film has been my companion. I’ve thought about it, watched it scores of times, analysed it and dreamt about it.
Now I’m making a book of the story, with my collaborator, the poet Olivia McCannon. It started out as a full homage to Cocteau’s interpretation, but through development has turned into something quite different: a new, reinvented version of the story, in which together Olivia and I acknowledge the film’s influence while finding our own own creative path.
There are several places in the book in which I want to visually capture my memories of watching sequences of the film when the camera ‘panned’ horizontally to reveal spaces by degrees. Beauty’s bedchamber was chief among these sequences.
Cocteau remarks in Diary of a Film how visitors to the studio loved exploring Beauty’s bedroom. Walls made of scrim allowed lights to be shone through them and created dissolving vistas of the garden sets beyond, and I imagine that must have made it a strangely liminal space for the actors to work in, finding themselves un-anchored and floating between worlds. Beauty’s bed, voluptuously draped with fur under its canopy of muslin, seems like a boat in this strange sea, and everywhere the glimmer and sheen of opulence.
It’s heady stuff. But the screen ratio of the time was undoubtedly confining, and so a panorama is suggested rather than attained, with the horizontally moving camera the director’s tool to take the audience on a tour of his creation.
By using a double-page spread, I have a ‘panoramic’ shape in which to set my illustration.
With no camera point-of-view to slow the reveal of my illustration, I rely on making an image that offers up all its elements slowly, to halt a headlong rush past them. So Beauty’s ‘enchanted’ looking-glass, is not a rectangular, framed mirror on a table, as it is in the film…
… but a full dressing-table with incorporated looking-glass, half veiled in a flimsy sheet, seen below in a detail from the final render. The time it takes to decipher the object, slows down the viewer, who must pause to better understand it.
And because I have no recourse to Georges Auric’s shimmering, orchestral film score, I set imagined breezes through the composition, ruffling the veils and sending leaves skittering, so the image ‘suggests’ a soundtrack where there is none.
Most people read an image left to right, and so we begin with the bed, with its vertically compressed canopy and hangings which stream out to carry the eye further into the composition, to the Caryatid with candles on her head, the veiled dressing-table and shell-backed chair, up to the bowed balcony overlooking the garden with the Beast’s pavilion/treasury shining in the twilight. (Or it might be an empty birdcage, swinging in the window.) Winds feature in the film whenever the strange is present: Beauty’s father is buffeted by a silent wind when he attempts to pour wine from a pitcher at the Beast’s table, and again at the moment when his previously unseen host appears in the garden, enraged by the theft of a rose.)
There’s no room here for the towering furniture and high ceilings of the Doré engravings that had so influenced Cocteau when he was planning the film. Budgetary constraints dictated his sets could not be spacious and airy. For the most part the interiors, painted black to hide their true proportions in darkness, are conjured by deploying accent features: the architecturally elaborate fireplace supported by living statues, towering stone doorways that dwarf Beauty and the iconic passageway of pale, disembodied arms holding candelabras that magically light when needed. With studio space limited, the bedchamber, while not large, is the most elaborate set in terms of textures, shimmering claustrophobically like a fevered dream. On her bed, swaddled in finery which practically disables her, Beauty appears frozen in the gleam of satin and roped pearls, as the hangings press in suffocatingly.
To mimic something of the character of Cocteau’s vision, an ornate border contains the illustration, compressing and tightening the space, so that it too will press in on whoever enters it. There are birds in the border, but I think of them as being pretty paper-cut decorations, because the Beast’s twilight kingdom in the film has no birds. Not in frame, and not on the soundtrack.
An exhibition of all the original artwork for Beauty & Beast, opens at Martin Tinney Galley, Cardiff, in October.