Johann Christian Rohl in the wolf’s den, part 2: the interview


Part 1 of J. C. R. in the wolf’s den may be found HERE

  • Clive H-J. With The Company of Wolves you’ve explored just one of the suite of Angela Carter’s tales, The Bloody Chamber. Was your first experience of this dark and sexualised spin on Red Riding Hood the short story, or the film by Neil Jordan? Many people came to Carter as a writer after seeing it.
  • Johann CR. I read the book first. I’d been told about the book by a friend I’d made in my first year of Uni, she was a second year and told me what briefs to expect and gave me advice and a lot of support throughout my time at Cambridge school of Art. I owe a lot of my development to her. (Erika Lewis I am eternally grateful, you beautiful blackbird.) I couldn’t put the book down. I was completely engrossed. This was a book that had so much meat to it. A most decadent banquet. There was a lot in those pages that I savoured. The writing itself was gothic, so rich in detail that you could almost smell the acrid blood drenching the tales. It was sharp and witty.
  • The stories felt like familiar terrain but weren’t. It was full of surprises and there was a whole wealth of dark imagery for me to delve into. There’s sexual bluntness, a bounty of symbolism. The writing is sharp and witty and there’s a heavy presence of danger! When I finished it I’d go back and read my favourite bits and I still do. I didn’t even know the film existed until one of my lecturers, Mick Gowar (an expert in fairytales and folklore and one of my most favourite people on this earth) told me about it in my second year. He’d recommended it as at the time I was exploring how the dream world had been achieved through film. I’d looked at Alice by Jan Svankmajer and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Jaromil Jires. Both films share a lot of similarities with Neil Jordan’s interpretation of The Company of Wolves, and allowed me to go deeper into the world of dream imagery. It was nice to see an interpretation of The Company of Wolves on film because all I’d known before was my own, obviously, so it was cool to compare the director’s take on it. Also the use of special effects was immensely appreciated! They really don’t make films like that anymore (and if they do then please point them out to me!) What about you? Which did you experience first?
  • Clive H-J. Like you, book first, film later. Interestingly, I felt sure that one of the fairy tale films Neil Jordan had referenced, was a favourite of mine. But we’ll come to that later.

  • Clive H-J. in the matter of re-spinning old tales, many have tried, and just about all have failed in comparison to what Carter achieved. She got there first, and in my opinion did it best, though I accept that I haven’t read everything out there. One of the things that makes me wish she had lived longer… and there are many… is that within The Bloody Chamber, she offered two riffs on Beauty and the Beast: The Tiger’s Bride and The Courtship of Mr Lyon, and both are beautiful in their own rights. I’m impressed by that doubling up, because to me it shows the kind of creativity I want to see in an artist, where there is no single, definitive approach. In my own practice I work and re-work a cache of carefully selected themes, because no version is the definitive one, and every time I set out, I feel as though I’ll do better for all the work that’s gone before. Like an actor never nailing the role of Hamlet, but discovering new layers with each performance. Discuss!
  • Johann CR. Reading the different takes on the same tale surprised me. I think as a collection I’m in amour of the way each story has it’s own fleshed out world that feels completely its own and at the same time there are these echoes from one story into another. The same motifs crop up and it feels like you’re looking through alternate realities of the same world. I think as an artist you’re taught to approach things from different perspectives. What art school has taught me is that there are an infinite number of solutions to be made. No single idea is the ultimate one. All of the artists that I look up to seem to have that creative unrest, that ability to keep going and going and going with an idea and with work in general. I think through observing the different perspectives on a subject you allow deeper understanding which is ultimately what it’s all about, exploration.

  • Clive H-J. I agree. So which of the other Bloody Chamber tales is tickling away at you right now, in terms of how you might approach it?
  • Johann C R. At the moment I’m working on The Lady of the House of Love which is a story overflowing with an abundance of imagery. It has this duality and divergency that I really enjoy in a story and I’m looking to recreate that. I’m hoping I can mirror all the contrasts and contradictions in it.

Below: image for The Lady of the House of Love

  • Johann CR. I really want to capture those elements of beauty and grotesqueness, violence and serenity, those qualities that give depth. I like that. The presence of sex and death is rife in these tales, and that’s something I want to be present in my drawings.

  • Clive H-J. I’m guessing you’ve already found and read Bruno Betelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (1976), but if you haven’t, order a copy from Abebooks now. (And if you haven’t read it yet, then you are going to love me for eternity for pointing you in its direction!)
  • Johann CR. I haven’t! Why that book isn’t already on my shelf I do not know. It looks like a Johann Rohl essential!

  • Clive H-J. To me it seems that Carter… like Betelheim did by bringing an analytical approach to the way children ‘use’ fairy tales to make sense of the world and its frightening aspects… gives her readers license to dredge up the darker sexualities underlying the tales, and be creative with them. (‘It’s OK’, she seems to be telling us, ‘to have those feelings. They’re exciting. It’s good to imagine a sexuality in which your lover licks your skin clean away to expose ever deeper layers of desire.’) I believe this particularly germane to gay men and women, for whom sexuality has too often in the past been a thing of shame. Discuss
  • Johann CR. I like the idea of layers being exposed by a lover, I think that’s a wonderful metaphor for the nature of a relationship and for sex as well because the only way you can let someone in is by bringing your walls down and exposing yourself. It’s a beautiful thing to be in a relationship with somebody. You learn so much from each other and you grow, and even when it doesn’t work out you still grow from the things that go wrong. The same can be said about work; you’re constantly working stuff out and learning, through exposure and exploration. There are always new conclusions to be reached, and even when an idea doesn’t work out you learn from it, and so you’re peeling layers of yourself back and revealing a better version of yourself. I believe that’s why I’m drawn to The Bloody Chamber it has that honesty and bluntness about sexuality, and I think that’s something I tend to seek out, that openness and assurance that it is okay to have those feelings and desires.
  • As a young gay man growing up I’ve always felt the need to hide those parts of myself away as a means of self preservation and I think in a way it’s been very damaging as I’m sure a lot of other people in the world have experienced themselves. So naturally I’ve always tried to look for assurance in some form or another where I can, be that in film, art or literature. I’m starting to find that if I’m open about my thoughts, feelings and experiences though then I’m allowing myself to make connections with other people that share those same thoughts, feelings and similar experiences and in turn I’m creating this world for myself where I no longer feel segregated or alone and that’s breaking down a lot of walls for me. At what point did you feel comfortable about your sexuality ?
  • Clive H-J. That’ll take a little explaining, because I grew up in different times. I was born in 1951, when homosexuality was illegal and considered by most people to be an aberration. For a child, those attitudes made for an incredibly isolating experience, and I hid as best I could the aspects that would draw attention to me. It made me rather introverted. What I still find most repellent about those times, is my memory of the cruelty practiced at every level. (You see it today, with the hatred directed at immigrants and all those deemed to be ‘outsiders’. For the greater part, homosexuality today in the UK has been protected by law from the prejudices that were once so rife.) Back in the 1950s and even the 60s, society as a whole openly despised and mocked gay men (and it was men, rather than women, that drew the most homophobic wrath), labelling them as limp-wristed, fey, ludicrous. Moreover gay men in the entertainment industry were actively complicit in that homophobia, emasculating themselves into parodies and sexual grotesques. (Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howard, John Inman and too many others.) It was as though it couldn’t be countenanced that homosexuals might actually be like everyone else, or that gay mens’ ‘desires’ came in as many varied packages as did those of heterosexuals. We had to be rendered neuter, laughed at, held up to ridicule. We couldn’t be handsome, or masculine, or heroic or powerful or any positive thing. It was horrible, and I absolutely knew that it was a lie, even before I began to discover the wider world for myself.
  • So I didn’t share my understanding of my sexuality with my parents, as I knew from things they said that they would’t understand. Imagine, if you can, a world in which there were no role models for gay men and no positive expressions of homosexuality. It was a world in which a defining part of my life would have to remain hidden. I knew that I was different and that my sexual desires ran counter to everything I saw around me, but I was damned certain that I didn’t fancy Kenneth Williams!
  • I got lucky. I went away to school in London. I studied performing arts at Italia Conti, left when I was fifteen-and-a-half, and made my way as a dancer/actor. Later I became a choreographer. In that world I could be myself. There were many of us, and we recognised each other. Gradually I told trusted, long-term friends. All was well. British film director and gay activist, Derek Jarman. became my hero. He was a force to be reckoned with. Here was a passionate, outspoken, drop-dead handsome and openly homosexual man. He was fired up and angry, and he wouldn’t shut-the-fuck-up. The establishment hated and feared him, but for me, he showed the way. Nothing was the same after Derek Jarman. He changed everything for us. I wish he were here still. Seek out his books, Johann. He was compassionate, insightful and loving, and he burned white-hot. Jarman wrote beautifully. Beautifully.

  • Given that we’re both horror film fans, I have to ask which film/s affected you most in terms of staying with you and informing your work? Mine are:
  • 1) Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. I love all its aspects: the visual aesthetic, the pace of the unfolding narrative, the sound (no music, but the soundtrack is masterful) the actors’ performances, the matte-paintings by Albert Whitlock that so ravishingly enhance the location footage, the horrific bird assault that begins with a seagull dive-bombing a man fuelling his car. All the performances in a film shot through with neurosis are mesmerising, not least newcomer Tipp Hedren’s cool blonde socialite becoming steadily unravelled.
  • 2) Hitchcock’s Psycho, because Anthony Perkins’ troubled Norman did it for me, and I deeply appreciated Janet Leigh’s unflinching yet nuanced performance of Marian Crane. Then there was Bernard Hermann’s amazingly nerve-jangling score. (Everyone talks about the shower scene music, but just listen to what Hermann did for Marian’s car journey in the rain. Staggering!
  • 3) La belle et la bête, directed by Jean Cocteau. Probably not horror at all… though in terms of what the Beast suffers the film might profitably be viewed alongside David Cronenberg’s The Fly… but certainly the most beautiful film of a fairy tale ever made.
  •  Johann CR. Yeahhh! The Birds and Psycho are both genius! I haven’t seen La Belle et la Bête. I’ll have to add that to my list!
  • Clive H-J. Do it. Now! The experience is going to change you.
  • Johann CR. I think for me films had a major influence in the early stages of my life but as I grew up I took a lot from video-games. Films that stick out for me from my early childhood that I think heavily influenced my interests now are:
  •  1) the Film of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. It frightened and fascinated me. I watched it recently and It’s fantastic! The Head Witch (Angelica Huston) is still as grotesque as ever. The special effects in it are fantastic and I think as a result it’s stood the test of time
  • 2) The Thing (the 80s one) was my first experience of a horror film. I saw it when I was very young. Far too young, really, to be watching anything like that. On a Wednesday after school I’d go to my grandparents house for tea and my granddad would record monster movies that had been on the telly for me because I was obsessed with stuff like that. I was always drawing monsters. So I’d go and there’d be a new VHS waiting for me and I’d go into the living room with my colouring pencils and paper and watch whatever it was whilst lying on the floor drawing. I don’t think I ever expected to see anything like that. I was disturbed, to say the least, but at the same time I had this morbid curiosity to rewind the tape and try again to keep my eyes open to the sight of this warped and twisted ‘thing’ on the TV screen. If only my granddad knew what he was recording for me haha!
  • There’s a quality I can’t quite pin down in Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders that I feel I’m being influenced by right now. If you haven’t yet watched it I’d recommend giving it a look, then maybe we can decipher what it is I’m on about.
  • Clive H-J. OK. I’ll do that, and you watch the Cocteau film. Tell you what, afterwards we’ll meet up again here, and discuss. Deal?

Above: a recent ‘self portrait’ by Johann that he tried to palm off on me instead of a photograph. I’m sure you’ll all be pleased that I persisted and was forwarded the image at the top of this post.

Johann will view La belle et la bête and I’ll view Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and  later we’ll convene for further discussion here at the Artlog.

a la Bête portfolio


Today I had a bit of fun with la Bête, using a scrap of gauze over the camera lens when photographing him. Not easy juggling my small digital camera in one hand only, gauze and all, while manipulating the puppet with the other. Interestingly, on the film set of La Belle et la Bête Cocteau battled with his cameraman to eschew any ‘softness’ of cinematography, emphasising that he wanted his images to be crystalline. Reading his diary I was impressed by his vision. While he saw his film as poetic, for him that meant not the ‘softly-focussed’, but an almost surgical precision and clarity of vision, and La Belle et la Bête is all the better for it.

Cocteau’s arguments notwithstanding, today I wanted to take the edge off sharpness, and to conjure a world of atmospherics, of dust through sunbeams and swathes of inky shadows. I’m no photographer, but there’s a little in these images of what I was looking for.

the tale of two muses

Marais and Cocteau at the Venice Film Festival, 1947

There can be no denying that Jean Marais was Cocteau’s muse. But it must be said that Cocteau was equally Marais’ muse, as was clear both in their cinema collaborations and in the work that Marais turned to when his screen career was largely over. From the moment they met the artist was inspired to fresh creativity by the young actor’s beauty, charm and character. Cocteau effectively re-made Marais, educating and finessing him for the role of film star. It had been what Marais had yearned for since he was a boy, and with Cocteau’s help, he triumphantly fulfilled his dream.

Both on stage and in the cinema Marais became the perfect interpreter for Cocteau’s work as a playwright and director, and in the films we have the lasting examples of what they achieved together.

In La Belle et la Bête (1946), L’Aigle a deux têtes (1947), Les Parents terribles (1948) and Orphée (1949), we see the flowering of Marais as a film actor, and Cocteau as a visionary of cinema. (Cocteau always referred to himself as an ‘amateur’ in the matter of making films, though he clearly meant nothing pejorative by that term, using it instead to imply that he was an ‘artist/poet’ using film as an expression of creativity.)

Notwithstanding his homosexuality, during the second world war Marais was briefly married to the actress Mila Parély. With his relationship with Cocteau in the ascendency, the marriage failed, though in 1946 Parély appeared as Beauty’s sister Félicie in La Belle et la Bête.

Parély, left, as one of the two vain sisters in La Belle et la Bête. The actress was the last surviving cast member of the film when she died at Vichy in 2012, aged ninety-four.

Marais’ film career was a relatively long one. He made over twenty films in the 1960s, and though there was a sharp tailing off of acting roles through the 1970s – 90s, he continued to make occasional on-screen appearances up until his death in 1998.

In the early 1970s he reinvented himself as a ceramic artist, setting up a workshop in Vallauris where he made decorative objects, frequently in his trademark ‘gunmetal’ finish. Even in this field of the plastic arts, the mood of La Belle et la Bête haunted much of what he produced. So many of his ceramics look as though they could have been found in the Beast’s palace.

Ceramic owl made by Jean Marais

Marais was made an Officer of the French Legion of Honour in 1996.

Jean Marais is buried at Vallauris, where his tomb bears decorative testimony to the role he is most famous for:

la Bête

Jean Marais: actor, artist, muse

1913 -1998

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 II

Beauty into Beast

Above: Marais and Cocteau on the Cote d’ Azur in 1939

Below: Six years later, Marais becomes Cocteau’s Beast

Cocteau came across the young actor in 1937 when working with the student cast of his play Oedipe-Roi at a Paris acting school, and though the artist was thirty-eight and Marais just twenty-four, the two quickly became inseparable. Marais clearly benefited from the older man’s patronage, but the benefits flowed both ways, because the relationship also spurred Cocteau to greater creatively. As his protégé blossomed into a skilled and respected actor, so Cocteau rose to the challenge and created productions for stage and film on which the two collaborated with great success. They’d been together for nearly ten years when filming began on La Belle et la Bête, with Marais, by then renowned for his beauty, cast in the double role of Avenant and the Beast.

The make-up for the Beast was fairly revolutionary. In 1941 Hollywood, Jack P. Pierce had transformed Lon Caney Jnr into The Wolfman by gluing hair directly onto the actor’s face. But Marais and Cocteau came up with the idea of commissioning a wig-maker to produce a ventilated hair-piece to cover the face. This ‘mask’ proved light and flexible enough to allow the actor’s performance to show through, though Marais occasionally felt isolated behind it, and was fretful that the fangs he wore made his words unintelligible. In fact his vocal performance seems remarkably clear, and dubbing was not required.

In the photographs above, there’s the sense that Marais is applying the make-up himself, with the film’s make-up artist, Hagop Arakelian, assisting him. (Cocteau rants bitterly against Arakelian in his published diary, referring to him only as ‘A’, and complaining that the make-up man was disinterested in the filming process and took no pains with his work.) It would be usual for an actor to apply his own make-up in the theatre… and Marais was a theatre actor… but it seems unusual on a film. However, Cocteau’s account of the production process suggests that his team had far more the informal feel of a repertory company than would be found generally on film sets of the time.

In his autobiography, Mes Quatres Véités, Marais recalls that creating the Beast’s appearance began with a visit to the wig-maker, Monsieur Pontet, for discussions. There a life-cast was made of his face for a ‘lace’ foundation to be fitted over. He attributes the elderly wigmaker with coming up with the idea of three overlapping appliances. At no point is there any mention of a make-up ‘designer’, as there would be today. Marais’ dog, Moulouk, used to accompany him to fittings, and the wigmaker and actor drew inspiration from the animal’s colouring and shagginess.

Above: Marais and Moulouk

Once densely knotted with hair by M. Pontet, the three-piece mask was ready for filming. In the last photograph of the application process (see above) co-star Josette Day stands next to Jean Marais, and may even be helping him to complete his transformation as she looks at the effect in the out-of-shot mirror, because she appears to be holding a makeup pad.

Defining Beauty

Above: an almost unrecognisable Josette Day, early in her career

Josette Day was an experienced film actor by the time she came to play Beauty, having begun her professional career as a child of five. An early training in dance undoubtedly gave her a physical grace that was perfect for the role. There is an unusual simplicity in her playing, which combined with the luminosity of her face in close-up, becomes increasingly mesmerising as the story unfolds. Cocteau writes in his diary:

‘Josette’s grace and sensitive acting astonish me. My short lines suit her. I never have to take anything twice. As Beauty she has naivety, simplicity and just that suggestion of superiority, as though she has seen things her family have not even dreamt about. She dominates Ludovic, cherishes her father, but is not ashamed of them when she returns home. She has to say her line: ‘Who has done my washing?’ dressed in pearls, tulle, silk and gold, yet even so, she does not lose her simple manner.’

Below: the wonderfully strange scene in which Beauty passes through a wall and slides to the ground. The illusion was achieved with practical effects, and thus has a physical quality that I find far more compelling than most ‘digital magic’.

The diary reveals that Cocteau was somewhat at loggerheads with the cinematographer, Henri Alekan, who favoured a diffuse quality for the film, whereas Cocteau required clarity. But whatever arguments and dissatisfactions may have been raging over makeup and camerawork behind the scenes, on screen the serene Day never looks anything other than glorious, a shining testament to the ultimate collaboration of the filmmakers.

Together again

Josette Day and Jean Marais were teamed again by Cocteau in his 1948 film of Les Parents Terribles. (See images below.)

For Part 3 Click HERE.

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.