On Revision in Illustration

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Work on Beauty and Beast. Text by Olivia McCannon and illustrations by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. To be published by Design for Today in October 2021.

Dissatisfaction is a part of the artist’s armoury of creativity. Without it, how would we ‘grow’ ideas?

To begin with there was nothing tangible, just the notion of making a book that had been rattling around in my head, seemingly forever. There was no text, only a huge admiration for Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film, La Belle et la Bête, shared with the poet and translator Olivia McCannon.

Olivia and I emailed each other for over a year, working out what there might be in terms of a book. Would it be a new translation of Cocteau’s screenplay, a return to the origin tale and a reinvention of it, perhaps in a contemporary setting, or something else entirely? Maybe something with threads running through it in homage to Cocteau’s masterpiece. A hybrid, both new and old, creating a dialogue with Cocteau and his fellow creators.

When I began preparations, there was much research, but as yet no text. Olivia and I were still exploring ideas. I’d been making maquettes and character studies, but everything was still undecided. My maquettes referenced the film, but also changed the characters. They weren’t likenesses of the actors playing the roles.

Early paper maquette of la Bête

As our talks focussed in on the notion of a hybrid creation, I made a single illustration – one I felt confident about as the foundation block – to which another was added, and then another, and another.

The first illustration

I’ve never worked in this way before. My illustration projects have always been responses to an existing text. But on this book I’m working with conversations with the writer as the starting points, and fragments of text still in flux. In illustration, the decisions made at the outset affect everything that follows: the way the characters look and what they wear. The settings – the buildings, rooms, passageways, gardens and landscapes of all the locations of the story. Every detail considered, invented, revised and rendered.

A group of images made out of sequence to the emerging text, grows. New images are added to make connections between them. Gradually a narrative in pictures emerges, but it’s a creation that morphs every day because each new part of it not only adds to what’s gone previously, but changes it. Each emerging section of the text, changes it. My starting point is invariably a scene from the film, which then transforms into a version I believe will work on a page. So a scene in which multiple cuts show Belle, la Bête, a table laid with silverware, crystal and fruit, an overmantel clock chiming, living statues watching from the shadows and a fire-blazing, gets condensed to a single double-page image.

Belle et la Bête in a frame from the film
One of two living stone busts that support the fireplace
Lay-out drawing for a double-page illustration of the scene
Study for a living statue

Illustrations become sandwiched by others that affect them. Sometimes an image is cancelled out and discarded, but more usually changed to better deliver what’s needed at that stage of the story. Things that weren’t issues, become so overnight. An idea I thought was coming over with clarity, becomes muddled because its context has changed.

Illustration underway
Detail of la Bête from the first version of the dining-room
Detail of the fireplace head from the first version
In the second version, the Beast and the stone head have changed
Third and final re-working of La Bête

I try to avoid obviousness when making images to accompany a text. I draw inspiration from Olivia’s emerging narrative, but largely attempt to colonise the spaces between her lines of poetry.

As the book expands, and the passages of text emerge to fit together with the images I’ve already completed, then my revisions begin. Perhaps I see that the adjustment of a character’s glance might better signpost the page-turner’s forward trajectory, or profitably pause it. A new line suddenly makes clear that the image is needed as a bridge to the next page turn, and an adjustment could aid that process. I enjoy the challenges of patching illustrations with newly worked elements, of discovering forgotten aspects and realising on reflection how they work better – or not so well – as I’d originally thought. The revisions don’t show in photographs and won’t show when printed, but the changes will be apparent when the works are exhibited in a gallery in October, when close inspection from oblique angles in bright light will reveal the myriad surgeries. I like the idea that the journey will be visible in the surface of the artworks, like age-lines in a characterful face.

Building a Panorama

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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.

Above: my first sketch for Beauty’s bed, and below, a study for 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.

Even in her bedchamber, Belle is never alone. Always the eyes of living statues watching her every move.

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.

Above: first draft sketch for a double-page illustration of Beauty’s bedchamber.

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.

Josette Day and Jean Marais on the tiny balcony of Belle’s bedchamber, from where they view la Bête’s ‘treasury’ in the gardens below.
Above, In another image from the book, Beast carries Beauty in a dead faint to her bedchamber, where her garments magically transform from those of a peasant girl, to a grand lady.

An exhibition of all the original artwork for Beauty & Beast, opens at Martin Tinney Galley, Cardiff, in October.

In the Realm of the Poet

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Work continues on my collaboration with poet Olivia McCannon on a new retelling of Beauty and the Beast, to be published by Design for Today. Working with Olivia is a revelation. Ideas bat back and forward between us in e-mails, and I find the conversations to be revelatory. We both make discoveries through the processes of discussion, exploring connections and explaining new ideas to each other, and I find that the e-mails and all the ideas they contain are as equal a source of the images I’m making as her evolving text. Recently Olivia wrote to me that she believed there was a rich seam to be considered in regard to Cocteau’s casting of the role of the Goddess Diana in the 1946 film, and that’s opened a whole treasury of possibilities about the living statues, which we’ve adopted for our own version of the story, and how their origins might be explored.

In another e-mail she wrote thrillingly of her imagined source of the jewels the Beast bestows on Beauty, and afterwards I could barely sleep for a week with excitement in anticipation of the images that were evolving in my head out of her ideas.

Above: detail of an illustration in progress: the Beast carries the unconscious Beauty to her bedchamber.

At this stage I can explain no more. While I enjoy sharing the creative processes of making images, in this instance I don’t want to offer them before they’ve been realised and the book published. Suffice to say that this is going to be a version of Beauty and the Beast like no other.

La Chasse

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Beauty & Beast, my dream-project with poet Olivia McCannon and publisher Joe Pearson at Design for Today, is my Winter 2020-to-Summer 2021 project. With all other commitments completed or slightly shifted, I can give it my full attention. This is one that’s so challenging and demanding that I need to go at it at a headlong tilt. It can’t be done in stages and set aside between times.

La Chasse is an idea I’d been thinking on as a double-page spread for a year or more. The hunt in the 1946 film isn’t witnessed. There’s a glimpse of a dead animal, and then the unforgettable scene in the corridor outside Belle’s room in which she finds la Bête, his dress disordered and blood-splattered and his hands smoking, as though he’s burning from within. It’s the one moment in the film where Belle looks disgusted by his appearance/condition. Her face twists into ugliness as she throws her flimsy scarf at him, commanding him to clean himself up. It’s hard to watch, given his evident distress.

What we know (well, what some of us know) is that this curse strips humanity from him with every act of beastliness, and like the person with dementia heartrendingly aware of the memories being stolen by the progress of the disease, so la Bête is in a state of bodily horror as his shape and nature shift until he’ll reach a point where he will have no recall of his former self.

Cocteau may have averted his camera gaze from the hunt and kill for technical reasons. Jean Marais as la Bête and Josette Day as Belle were both weighed down by elaborate costumes that while gorgeous, dictated that their scenes together be conducted as a dream-like and stately Pavane. Marais was athletically built and fit, but his costume and make-up were not made for running. We see him make a brave dash for the undergrowth, and that’s that.

Above: Belle calls after La Bête as his animal nature gets the better of him when he catches scent of prey.

These days CGI would step in to render him as fleet and lithe as Spiderman, and we wouldn’t be any better off for it. But as an artist/illustrator, the moment of the kill is one I can’t turn away from, and so for months I’ve played with visual ideas to bring the moment to life.

The sequences in the Beast’s gardens were stitched together from film-footage made at locations, particularly at the Chateau of Raray. The gate above, now stripped of the ivy and undergrowth that made it so picturesque when Cocteau turned his camera on it, became an architectural anchor for the illustration, though I simplified it considerably so as not to imbalance the composition.

I also reinvented the flanking Caryatids into more enigmatically watchful Sphinx-like creatures, as an interesting distaff to the living male statues that flank the fireplace and breathe out plumes of smoke in the Beast’s dining-room.

Above: from my Beauty and Beast project book.
Above: the Raray Gateway simplified and reinvented into an illustration.

A fully worked up study for the illustration (see detail above) experimented with textures and shapes. But in the end I decided to reverse the Beast so that he attacks the animal from the front, disabling it the way a big cat hunts, by blocking its prey’s windpipe. It also made the image read better, as Western readers have an eye-direction that moves left to right.

Here’s the image in the final render.

The iconic lace, stand-up collar has come undone. It’s a slightly strange and abstract shape that works in context because readers will already be familiar with the collar from previous images. The trailing sleeves are still in place, but the breeches are gone, and one powerfully taloned foot has now become too distorted to fit into the single, elegant, lace-cuffed Chevalier’s boot that remains. The Beast’s fashionably slashed sleeves mirror the injuries made by those meat-hook claws that lock into flesh to hold the creature steady.

Dozens of drawings, from the briefest of sketches to fully-worked-up paintings and detailed maquettes have helped me get from idea to illustration.

Beauty and Beast

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I’m happy to make the formal announcement that Olivia McCannon and I are currently collaborating on our exploration of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, which will be published by Joe Pearson at Design for Today. The project began with Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête, though while inspired by that masterwork of cinema, our version is increasingly evolving its own character. I sometimes say that it’s not so much a version of Cocteau’s film, than a dream we’ve had of it. (I’ve been dreaming about La Belle et la Bête a lot recently.)

Olivia McCannon is a poet and translator. Her collection Exactly My Own Length (Carcanet) won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize and was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Prize. A new collection, Z, is forthcoming. She has translated the poetry of Louise Labé and Ariane Dreyfus, and a Balzac novel (Penguin Classics). Her doctoral research at Newcastle University (Northern Bridge/AHRC-funded) considers the potential of poetry and translation as ‘arts of living on a damaged planet’. She is currently collaborating with Clive Hicks-Jenkins on an illustrated Beauty and Beast that is both a response to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête and a poetic regeneration of the story’s sources. 

Clive Hicks-Jenkins has developed a reputation as an artist who works with poets. For over a decade he’s collaborated closely with the American poet Marly Youmans, producing book-jackets and page decorations for her anthologies and novels. His illustrations will accompany Simon Armitage’s new translation of the medieval poem The Owl and the Nightingale, to be published by Faber next year. Beauty and Beast will be Clive Hicks-Jenkins third collaboration with publisher Joe Pearson at Design for Today, and his first with Olivia McCannon.

In 2019 Design for Today published Simon Armitage’s Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes with illustrations by Clive Hicks-JenkinsArmitage and Hicks-Jenkins had worked previously on the Faber & Faber 2018 illustrated edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but it was the illustrations for their second book collaboration, Hansel & Gretel, that caught the attention of the judges of the V&A Illustration Awards, resulting in the artist being named the winner of the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award. Design for Today has just published Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ picture book The Bird House in their ‘Bantam’ series.

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 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

HERE and HERE

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.