Jean Cocteau was often characterized as a Surrealist, and Beauty and the Beast, his most fanciful picture, is still often thought of as a Surrealist film.
But Cocteau was quick to distance himself from the movement. It isn’t hard to see the differences: The Surrealists resented wealth, for one thing, while Cocteau — in his films if not in his life — relished opulence and luxury.
Beauty and the Beast is a class fantasy, after all: The put-upon Belle (Josette Day), whisked from squalor by her regal Beast (Jean Marais), finds with him comforts beyond imagining, her new life quite appealing even if the suitor isn’t. And of course one of the principal pleasures of this fairy tale is how grandly Cocteau has furnished it. The production design, by Coco Chanel illustrator Christian Bérard, is magnificent, while Marcel Escoffier’s costumes are of Renaissance splendor. (This lavishness was hard-won: Things were scarce in France so soon after the war.)
The uncanny aspect of all this excess — the film can sometimes seem “almost unbearable in its ethereal gorgeousness,” as Geoffrey O’Brien wrote — tends toward the manner of a dream, as if at any moment Belle might snap out of it. Well, beauty is fragile. Magic is rare. And it’s precisely the blessing of the cinema that it affords us such opportunities to indulge in fantasy.
Beauty and the Beast
Directed by Jean Cocteau
Opens February 12, Film Forum