Nature of the BEAST

While waiting to see what new box-office records Disney rakes in with the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, I decided to return to the point of origin, the original 1946 French classic directed by Jean Cocteau, now restored to pristine clarity by Criterion Collection. I also checked out the sumptuous 2014 French remake, just released on home video in America, to capitalize on the attendant Disney mania.

To start at the beginning: Jean Cocteau was a real Everyman of the imagination—poet, designer, playwright, artist and filmmaker. He’d meticulously planned the design and shooting of Beauty and the Beast during the Nazi Occupation, originally intending to film it in color. Due to the high cost, however, Cocteau reverted to black-and-white, a happy misfortune given the magical vision sustained by the film’s use of light and darkness. Indeed, color might have proved a serious detriment in this case. For instance, imagine Citizen Kane or Psycho in something other than gorgeous, dramatic black-and-white.

For proof of the obvious in the case of Alfred Hitchcock’s original classic, check out Gus Van Sant’s disastrous remake in “living” color.

Now back to B&B. Those viewers familiar with only the Disney animated version will certainly recognize the plot and characters. To save her bankrupt father, Belle (Josette Day) ventures back to the magical castle from which he has been released, surrendering herself to the demands of the monstrous Beast (Jean Marais). At first repulsed, she eventually learns to love him, thus saving his life as well as her family’s fortunes.

Unable to employ the post-production wizardry of today’s filmmakers, Cocteau still constructs real magic out of his fantasy, creating his most memorable fantasy elements within the camera itself. Ghostly arms protrude from the walls of the castle, holding torches to light the way for Belle. (In 1965, Roman Polanski adapted this device to great effect in his horror masterpiece Repulsion.) The eyes of statues follow the movement of the Beast and his guest, while disembodied hands set the table and serve the food.

The mood and tone of the film throughout are both allusive and elusive, eerie and romantic, dreamlike and realistic. In short, the film plays like a poem and a fairytale, but above all like a celebration of the imagination made possible by the magic lantern of film.

Worth pointing out about the new release is the restoration of Cocteau’s original title sequence, which shows him in front of a blackboard writing the names of Jean Marais and Josette Day, both of whom erase their own before Cocteau signs his. It’s a clever and generous reminder of the collaborative nature of film art.

Then Cocteau offers his timeless written invitation: “Children believe what we tell them … They believe a thousand simple things. I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s ‘Open Sesame’: Once upon a time …”

Like his film, the sentiment never grows old.

The 2014 version, which had a limited theatrical release over here this past fall before its appearance earlier this month on home video, is directed by Christophe Gans (Silent Hill,Brotherhood of the Wolf). Like those earlier two films, this Beauty and the Beast (or, La Belle et la Bête), is a visual feast, Gans employing the full range of F/X wizardry to accent the fantastic in the tale.

The plot is expanded to include a complicated backstory for the Beast (Vincent Cassel) as well as for a band of marauders who, near the film’s conclusion, lay siege to the castle. This second element is actually closer to the Disney version than to Cocteau’s. On the other hand, Belle (Lea Seydoux, Blue Is the Warmest Color) is more akin to Cocteau’s strong-willed heroine than a Disney princess.

In the end, however, the film’s human characters are somewhat diminished by the production design and special effects, not unlike Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer and Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful. The final battle includes gigantic walking statues and mythological creatures quite outside the fairytale milieu of either Cocteau or Disney.

This is not to say that the later version is a failure—quite the opposite. If anything, it shows how a timeless tale is still capable of a new twist. Like the two children whose mother is telling them the story, we are still open to wonder and surprise.

The two French films have plenty of both—in different doses.