La Belle et la Bête: part III

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


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

Below: Nane Germon as Adélaide, 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


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.

For Part 2 Click HERE.