“God of the forest. Let me go back to him. It is my only wish. My only desire.”
‘La Belle et la Bête’, directed by Jean Cocteau in 1947, is a French fantasy movie. An adaptation of an C18 fairy tale telling the story of a young woman, Belle, who rejects a suitor but, owing to the greed of her father, is lured to a strange castle occupied by a beast. To save her father, she agrees to stay with him in the castle, and there a strange bond forms between them. As with Jean Cocteau’s films a large part of the pleasure of watching this is the stylised sets and camera tricks. The castle in particular is a fantastical construction of trompe l’oeil, abstract design and Cocteau’s unnerving use of real actors to stand in for statues and even candle holders. The camera swoops and explores the sets, gliding around the characters like a dance, which is presumably the inspiration for the Disney animated version in the 1990s. All the fantasy and the effects enhance the relatively simple storyline, but never overwhelm the performances, particularly that of Cocteau’s muse Jean Marais in the dual role as the beast and as Belle’s jilted lover. Marais manages to inhabit the character of the enchanted prince completely and, despite being masked by make-up, relays all the complex emotions required of him. This is one of the more accessible of Cocteau’s movies, lacking, as it does, the jarring contemporary setting of ‘Orpheus’ or the freewheeling surrealism of ‘The Blood of a Poet’ and ‘The Testament of Orpheus’. It’s probably advisable to watch this movie first as a primer for the director’s style and poetry.
Would I recommend it? Yes – watch in a double bill with ‘Orpheus’ and you’ll get a complete sense of Cocteau as a filmmaker.