Like the Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont fairy tale on which it’s based, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946) bluntly celebrates a love that privileges interior beauty over external repulsiveness. Embodied by the titular Beast, physical ugliness here is only skin-and-mottled-fur deep. Cocteau’s earlier The Blood of a Poet (1930) was surrealism for surrealism’s sake, but B&B grounds its fantastical visual style with a linear romance narrative. What’s both appealing and problematic is its visual opulence. Full of baroque interiors, elegant costumes, and overwrought jewelry (even tears turn to diamonds), the film is all surface, and undermines its own don’t-trust-a-pretty-face and anti-greed themes at every turn.
Belle’s family, like most found in fables, consists of hastily drawn types, many of them grossly flawed. In Cocteau’s film, there’s a wastrel brother, two mocking and greedy sisters, and a nebbish father who has just lost his fortune. Belle’s virtue, in this case, resides in her lack of insight. Whereas Disney’s bookish Beauty aspires to leave her one-horse village, Cocteau’s Belle (Josette Day) is a homebody simp. Incapable of noticing her brother’s laziness or sisters’ ill will, she leaves home only after her father accidentally stumbles into Beast’s creepy manse and earns a death sentence for picking a rose in the garden. Trading in one domestic hell for another, she places herself under house arrest at the Beast’s castle in order to save her father’s life.
The castle is at once an enchanted palace and a stifling prison. With designer Christian Berard, Cocteau transforms the architectural space into living, breathing form. Human arms emerge from the walls, holding candelabras that light themselves. Caryatids open their eyes and blow smoke. Hands emerge from a table to serve food. Doors open without being touched. There is something haunting about the way this house dresses and feeds Belle, anticipating her every need. It is not luxurious so much as infantilizing.
And so is the Beast, played by Jean Marais dressed in a magnificent costume that evokes Chewbacca crossed with a tabby cat. He dotes on Belle with a mixture of unquenchable desire and extreme self-loathing. All breathy exhortations, he comes off like a lovelorn drill sergeant with laryngitis. The Beast’s successful courtship via internment is about as plausible as Antonio Banderas’s of Victoria Abril in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, but it makes sense here because Cocteau chooses to keep Belle so childish, despite her hardships. Later asked what Beast has for dinner, she responds, hilariously, “He doesn’t eat.” Actually, he devours deer, leaving their ravaged carcasses on his castle’s grounds.
At the film’s beginning, Cocteau makes the following request: “I ask of you a little . . . childlike simplicity.” This call for naïveté and belief in fantasy was, at the time, meant as an antidote to the harsh reality of post-occupation France. But it serves another purpose: Viewers must get in touch with their inner child to fall for Belle’s eventual love for Beast. The film seems somewhat aware of this, casting an ambiguous hue on its happily-ever-after conclusion.
When Beast shape-shifts into Prince Charming (also played by Marais), he sheds his self-doubt along with the fur. His smooth, smug demeanor is not that attractive, and this isn’t entirely lost on Belle. She recoils from his touch and tells him, comically, “I must get used to it.” The audience must, too. But before anyone can adjust, the happy couple flies away into the sky. This could be yet another moment when Cocteau wishes the viewer’s submission to a delightful acceptance of the unreal. Mostly, though, it feels like another fantasy move meant to mask the director’s troublingly unnuanced version of the story.