I’m not sure if I have any new insights to bring to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, which is near-universally regarded as one of the best and most classic of movie fantasies. But I need to give some reminder that this blog is still alive, and I think it may prove a useful peg on which to hang a couple of thoughts.
I got around to watching it for the first time a couple of months ago, and have already seen it a few times since. Cocteau’s version has none of the sentimentality, catharsis or even charm of the Disney version, and at times even feels like it’s being slyly subversive.
Which isn’t to say that it is unromantic or deconstructive. Indeed, more than any other movie I’ve seen, this Beauty and the Beast feels more in tune with the tone and rhythms of actual literary fairy tales, which is enough for me to declare it a better movie than Disney’s (which I already hold to be the best Disney movie to be produced during my lifetime).
What I mean by this is that our popular idea of what fairy tales are has been more shaped by the Disney canon than by Andersen, MacDonald and the like – large doses of gooey sentiment, easy platitudes and convenient endings. But an essential part of the fairy tale is its peculiar slipperiness: as Tolkien noted, Faerie is both a mysterious and a perilous realm. In venturing there, we’re out of our element and can find ourselves in a Kafkaesque nightmare just as easily as we can in a happily ever after (or both at the same time). Inasmuch as fairy tales appeal to our deepest desires, there is no way of avoiding peril.
So it is with Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, which pushes its material in strange and discomfiting ways. Which is very true to how being trapped in an enchanted castle with an imperious man-beast is a very strange and discomfiting situation to be in (I don’t think it’s necessary to rehearse the particular details of this story). And the world outside the castle appears so mercenary and petty that we intuitively understand why Belle leaps perhaps a little too eagerly into her imprisonment. What unfolds at the castle is less of a love story than it is a kind of psychological tete-a-tete in a surrealist dream space.
All this is reflected in the all special effects and stylistic flourishes, which succeed precisely because they never quite achieve a feeling of reality, but rather the kind of feeling you might have in a dream. The scene where Belle arrives at the castle, for instance, is played in slow motion, and something about the rhythm of her movements conveys that sensation of “I need to move but somehow the air is thicker than water.” The cheapness of the postwar production, with sets that sometimes look very much like sets, and film stock of wildly varying quality, actually contributes to all this; the intro sequence itself cheekily calls attention to the movie’s own artifice).
The ending is infamous, but also very honest. In a movie where the Beast is going to be the centrepiece, all your craftsmanship and effort is going to go towards making him as compelling as possible (and the makeup effects here are genuinely convincing), and so there’s no way the prince at the end, by dint of his own ordinariness, can possibly be as interesting. The magic goes away along with the Beast – thus Cocteau handles the final transformation in the most deflating and anticlimactic way possible, as one final pulling of the rug.
So it remains a movie that has a lot of inviting, enchanting qualities, but which never allows you to get too comfortable. But inasmuch as beauty is transcendent, can it ever be completely comfortable? I feel that, all too often, we confuse the beautiful with the merely pretty: things which are pleasant, affirming and don’t ask anything of us. These things have their purpose, but they’re unlikely to change lives.
I think particularly of a lot of modern blockbuster movies, which have become particularly good at becoming a safe investment for both movie studios and audiences: we both know with reasonable assurance what we’re getting out of the deal.
But I also do wonder if this “hiding behind the pretty” thing is something Catholics who have an interest in the arts should think about, inasmuch as that involves a theoretical commitment to the idea of goodness beauty and truth as transcendentals. Usually things are framed as a fight against the ugly and the decadent in the arts, which may be necessary, but strikes me as a bit incomplete.
Not that I feel I have any strong or consistent answers here, least of all in regard to my own art: I just do what seems cool and interesting to me.
I’m starting to ramble, so let’s tie things back: there’s a moment in Beauty and the Beast where a character brings a key up to a keyhole, causing the door to resonate and a light to go on, as if a magical contraption were being activated. Immediately he gets second thoughts and pulls the key away and the light goes out. We find out what’s on the other side of the door, but the door itself remains a mystery – which is very emblematic of the movie.