Tuesday, May 29, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On At the Movies #40 - Beauty and the Beast (1946, dir. Jean Cocteau)

     This 1946 film adaptation of the classic fairy tale by poet, director, painter Jean Cocteau is, in my opinion, a perfect movie. There is not a moment of this visually stunning film that is less than riveting. Not only is the story a simple and classic tale of love, greed, beauty and loyalty that any viewer can relate to, the film itself is an almost incomparable feast of movie magic containing countless beautiful and unforgettable images. Jean Cocteau does not really change the specifics of the familiar children’s tale, but within the telling of the story makes his personal ruminations on love and relationships manifest. Belle, played with youthful radiance by Josette Day is the scullery maid for her two older sisters. She seems to be fated to a life of lonely servitude. As her father leaves one day she asks him to bring her a rose. He finds one, but it is plucked from the garden of a half-man/half-beast who demands the father’s life in exchange for the rose. The Beast is willing to take possession of Belle instead, and thus begins the relationship of Beauty and The Beast. The particulars of the story are almost irrelevant, because the film is filled with such lyrical beauty and visual magic that it can be appreciated on its filmic merits alone. The fact that it is beautifully acted and told in a way that is both true to the childlike roots of the story and to the philosophical underpinnings of the director is just a bonus. One can easily be swept away by the surreal imagery and exceptional film work.

From the first scenes at The Beast’s magical castle we realize that the rules of the natural world no longer apply. The Beast walks upright like a man, yet he is part of the natural world, preying on weaker animals. He is also the keeper of profound magic. His castle is filled with disembodied arms that hold torches, statues that suddenly come alive and follow one with their eyes, magical mirrors, gloves that bring the gift of flight, tears that are shed as diamonds instead of salt water, and a mysterious pavilion watched over by the goddess Diana where The Beast keeps his treasure. Like Beauty, The Beast also toils in a world without love. He adores Beauty but she is repulsed by his animal qualities. As the movie progresses, we see Belle begin to realize the inner beauty of The Beast and she soon begins to fall in love with him. Things are complicated when her brother and erstwhile lover from her old home try to break into the pavilion and steal The Beast’s treasure. As I said, the particulars of the story are almost meaningless because one is so swept up by the sets, costumes and special effects. Filmed in black and white due to budget limitations, it turns out to be the greatest gift this film could get, as the palette of muted, shadowy tones lends the film a completely unique otherworldly quality it never could have achieved in color. Cocteau and his fellow filmmakers are fearless in their use of experimental techniques used to create a fantasy world where magic is real. No big-budget action franchise comes close to the mystery and beauty that Cocteau’s small film achieves.
As the story winds through betrayal and recognition and Belle ultimately chooses The Beast, thus freeing the dashing prince within, the viewer is actually left with mixed feelings about this happy ending. We see that the real story was indeed the acceptance of The Beast’s inner beauty and humanity that won her over, and that his turning into a handsome prince is almost a let down. Belle now understands that beauty is just a trick of the eye and that true love is born of character. The Beast was not only fascinating, he was internally beautiful, and by making him an acceptable member of society, some of the real beauty was lost, or obscured by societal convention. But ultimately none of that matters because Beauty and The Beast can be enjoyed on the most basic, sensual level. It is unspeakably lovely to look at, and no amount of analysis can change that. If the idea of a desert island movie really did exist, and I could only see one film again for the rest of my life - I could probably be endlessly engaged by this masterpiece. It is simply impossible to take your eyes off the screen.

- Paul Epstein

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