La Belle et la Bete (1946) – Jean Cocteau

The Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book returns me to the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre, and this time, it’s to plunge me into this wonderfully imagined fairy tale. Long before Disney retold the story, first in animated format, then a stage musical, and then in a live action film, French director Cocteau brought the story to life in a magical and beautiful way.

The story, at this point, has become almost ingrained in popular culture. To save her father, Belle (Josette Day) agrees to remain the prisoner of the monstrous Beast, or Bete (Jean Marais buried in some pretty astonishing makeup and facial appliances for the time, and even impressive now) and a bit of a romance grows between them.

There are a few things that aren’t so familiar, or at least to later versions of this tale, but familiar in the realm of fairy tales. She is the most beautiful of three sisters, but it is the other two who gallivant around town, while Belle is made to clean and do the housework.

There is a suitor, Avenant (also Marais),  who would take her away from this life if he could, but she is dedicated to her father (Marcel Andre), who owes la Bete a death for stealing a rose from his garden. Belle finds her way to la Bete’s castle to take her father’s place. Of course, the transformed prince is taken with her, and decides to not kill her.

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I love the production design, especially as it relates to the Bete’s home, the hands and arms everywhere, holding lamps, pouring drinks, the faces watching from the designs around the fireplace. It’s surreal, but completely in keeping with the fairy tale Cocteau is telling.

For someone who was only familiar with the Disney version, and the late 80s television show with Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman, this one ended up being a very enjoyable revelation. The magic, the design, the performances, all of them are pretty solid for the time, and even endure through to today.

The story plays out, exactly as we have heard countless times before, with some added features and slightly different characters, but it’s so good. The film is enchanting, wonderfully produced, and brought to life in a way that must have been amazing to see at the time.

And like all fairy tales, there are morals, messages and deeper meanings to everything, even as the audience is given its happy ending.

This was one I really enjoyed. I’d seen clips and stills before, but had never seen this iteration until now. It may be my new favourite.

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