Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast

In the words of the great Edwardian proponent of fairy tales G.K. Chesterton, the noble lesson behind the fable of the Beauty and the Beast is that one must be loved in order to become lovable... Someone treated like an animal will become an animal, someone treated with worth, dignity and beauty as a human being will become a human being.

Demonstrating this in the story itself is always difficult. It always proves problematic for writers and filmmakers to make a credible leap in projecting this wonderful truism into a tale about a woman who falls in love with a literal animal who is a vicious, abusive brute. That a romance with an animal would take on morally discomforting overtones is one thing. That he spends a good portion of the story being a monster within as well as a monster without makes it that much more troublesome. It is even open to modern criticisms that it teaches girls to stay in relationships with abusive men in the vain hope that their love will somehow shine through and heal the abuser.

Such is the secular interpretation. A more sacred one sees in the timeless story an allegory of the amor Dei, the love of God for humanity. In such a reading, humanity is the prince whose cruelty turns him into little more than a walking beast. From beyond the Beast's isolated world where, in the gaze of cruelty and hate, other people have become mere objects, the Father enters. The Beast, unable to conceive of the Father's motives of love, imprisons him in a deathly web of dogma. To liberate the Father, the Daughter most fair comes, whose relentless love redeems the Beast's humanity.

Of course, such an interpretation runs against the problem of the strenuous relationship between the two protagonists. French Surrealist artist Jean Cocteau suffers no less from this dilemma. In his 1946 film adaptation of the story, he practically dispenses with the attempt to justify how it is that the ingenue Belle comes to have affection for the Beast. Their relationship is civil for the most part, with the occasional shouting match and her constant spurning of his offer for marriage. On the one hand she has a growing respect for him, and on the other a kind of angry pity. One scene has her yelling at him to clean himself up and stop acting like such an animal. Their is a complex, uneasily romantic, relationship, as might be expected. Consistent with his literary form, the Beast is not the abusive character seen in other versions. His crime is to keep her captive, which he is able to do by her own sympathy. Nonetheless we must make the leap to accepting that somehow she sees something in him that is not apparent to us. Such is love!

It is a leap, however, that Cocteau asks of us from the beginning. In one of the most touching breaks with the fourth wall in cinema, the director begs the indulgence of the audience in allowing those magic words of childhood - "once upon a time" - to forgive any lapses. It is not difficult to forgive him either, for in the end the story is very charming and full of redeeming compassion. Whereas in the beginning of the film Cocteau begs the indulgence of our childlike sympathies, by the movie's close he tells us that being childlike may yet save our soul from becoming beastly and brutish. It was not any particular cruelty of Marais' Prince Ardent that caused him to be turned into a beast: it was his parents' disbelief in spirits and fairies that caused these supernatural beings to take their revenge upon them through their son.

The film's themes are further elaborated by understanding the drama at play beneath it. The same actor to play both the Beast and Belle's semi-villainous suitor, Jean Marais, was the gay lover of Jean Cocteau. Beauty and the Beast can easily stand as an allegory of the trials of homosexual affairs in an era before their social acceptance. To be lovable one must be loved, and love must search out the inner depths and inner identity of another to find that hidden self. That cannot be done while one is shutting themselves off from the world around them, reverting to a state that is feral and distorted by self-loathing.

However the story is treated, what truly stands out is the artistic direction and set design that portrays a quintessential haunted manor. In fact, it is said that the design elements of other, more famous Haunted Mansions were inspired by such pieces in Beauty and the Beast as the wall-mounted candelabras made of moving arms. There is an eerie aura of foreboding and mystery to the moving sculptures with their leering eyes, the aforementioned candle-holders, the doors that open and sheets that pull off themselves, and the billowing drapes in darkened corridors. The scene of Belle's arrival in the castle is in peak form, as she glides eerily past otherworldly enchantments. It frequently swings from the magical to the frightening, closely aligned to the classic horror films by Universal Studios and European Expressionists. It never reaches their full terror, though, since this is still a fairy tale. A very French fairy tale at that. Exteriors of the Beast's castle were filmed at the Château de la Roche Courbon and Château Raray, highlighting its French character.

Beauty and the Beast is an unsung classic, occupying a place in artistic film of the mid-century where, once discovered, it enshrines itself in the heart as a masterpiece.

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