One of the sustaining myths of civilisation building is that of the women dragging their men folk out of the saloon bars and into the church pews… of the latter ceasing to spread their wild oats and getting down to some serious husbandry… of love overcoming lust and oxytocin trumping testosterone. The taming of male libido and aggression has been an ongoing theme of fantasy cinema, from any amount of readings of Dr Jekyll And Mister Hyde to King Kong, Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolf Man and assorted Paul Naschy knock-offs… from films as bland as Disney pablum and the pap of the Twilight franchise to those as seditious as Borowczyk’s La Bete…
Jean Cocteau’s La Belle Et La Bête (1946) comes as close as any of these to presenting a definitive take on the “Beauty and The Beast” theme by sticking, straight-faced, to the source whereby Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (in 1740… subsequently abridged by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756 and Andrew Lang, 1889) distilled this wisp of folklore into formal fairy tale.
Josette Day is Belle, the beautiful and virtuous daughter of a penurious father (Marcel André), ridiculed and over-worked by her acquisitive sisters (shades of Cinderella). When Papa rides off in hope that his ship has finally come in, the Ugly Sisters place their orders for jewels and finery while Belle (to their haughty amusement) requests but a single rose (shades of King Lear). That ship duly fails to come in and her dad compounds their misfortune by picking the requested rose from the enchanted garden of La Bête (Jean Marais), who demands one of his daughters in recompense, as an alternative to taking the old man’s life.
The dutiful Belle takes his place and The Beast is duly smitten with her. The balance of the picture is taken up (along with her ghastly family’s mercenary machinations) with the accommodation which the title characters come to and the revelation of Monsieur Bête’s finer features, by dint of which he ultimately wins her heart and transforms, in the process, into Prince Charming, the maskless Marais (the French Brad Pitt of his day).
So many factors contribute to making La Belle Et La Bête such an off-kilter classic… the idiosyncratic, fourth wall-breaking title sequence, the atmospheric black-and-white photography by Henri Alekan, Christian Bérard’s other worldly production design (he’s credited as “illustrator”), the costumes courtesy of Antonio Castillo and Marcel Escoffier… not to mention such surreal features as the animated furniture and fittings and oneiric moments like the one in which Belle blossoms through her bedroom wall (after donning a magic glove, obviously).
Cocteau intended La Belle Et La Bête as a welcome and necessary injection of fantasy after the horrors of World War II (its prologue requests a mindset of “childlike simplicity” from prospective viewers), but the cachet of his Surrealist associates, who had sat out the German occupation in foreign exile, inevitably waned in comparison to that of the Existentialists, who had stayed and resisted. The reputation of Cocteau, who had stayed, fared worse still… he was later accused (though acquitted) of collaboration. Myths prevail, though and sampled at this remove, the dreamlike qualities of his furry fairy tale enchant the palate like a sparkling glass of Crémant de Loire while the contrived intellectual conceits of Godard, Robbe-Grillet, Melville et al are about as appealing as yesterday’s croissants.
Looking suitably princely and charming in a 5K scan from 2013 (5K? Expect all your favourite titles to be re-offered to you yet again in the near future), the BFI’s La Belle Et La Bête is handsomely appointed with a predictably lavish coachload of extras. Aside from the obvious trailer, a stills gallery and an illustrated booklet of essays (which I haven’t seen), there’s a commentary track from the always compelling Sir Christopher Frayling, film and audio clips of scenes that were deleted from the film (to its benefit, it has to be said) and two short documentaries, the first of which deals with the difficulties the polymath poet / director laboured under during the production of LB&LB and also those faced by its restorers, drawing on the invaluable pages of Cocteau’s film making diary while dodging the question of the extent to which René Clément actually co-directed the proceedings. The second documentary paints an engrossing if not always endearing portrait of Christian Bérard, whose vision drew from the paintings of Vermeer and the engravings of Gustave Doré while in its turn exerting an undeniable influence over the likes of Jim Henson, Terry Gilliam and Ridley Scott (keep La Belle Et La Bête in mind next time you watch Blade Runner, in particular the scenes in J.F. Sebastian’s apartment).
Best of all is the inclusion of René Bertrand’s 13 minute claymation epic Barbe Bleu, (1938), an appropriately beautiful and brutish rendition of the associated Blue Beard myth that’s virtually worth the price of admission on its own.