Monday, August 2, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Beauty and the Beast" (1946)

Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" is probably my favorite animated film of all time, and I've been meaning to watch the 1946 live-action French film that heavily influenced it for some time.

It's really geared more as a children's fairy tale -- I saw it on Turner Classic Movies as part of a bloc of kiddie flicks. I think the animated version has much deeper themes that it explores more fully -- especially the beastly nature of men.

You already know the basic fable: A beautiful young woman is forced to live as the prisoner of a hideous Beast in order to spare the life of her father. Over time the gruesome creature grows to love young Belle, and she returns the affection. Their love breaks the spell that was cast upon him, and he is revealed as a handsome, rich prince who will take his lady love far away to live happily ever after as his queen.

Director Jean Cocteau, who also wrote the screenplay based on the fairy tale by 18th century writer Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (which she adapted from an original story by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve), created a visually stunning world in which to populate his characters. Even seen today, the technical and artistic achievements of the film are quite impressive.

Let's start with the amazing make-up for actor Jean Marais to portray the beast, which reportedly took five hours to put on, and another five hours to take off. What's really amazing about it is that it covers his face without completely disguising his facial features and expressions. His eyes, in particular, are still able to emote beautifully.

Cocteau's conception of the Beast is a little more canine in appearance and behavior than subsequent versions like the animated film and 1980s TV show, which bent toward a leonine mien. Although you can clearly see the similarities to the Disney Beast, especially in the ballroom dance scene where he dresses up in formal wear, which the French beast wears all the time.

The disembodied servants in the Beast's magical castle are there, although they remain wordless hands and faces appearing and disappearing out of the walls and furniture. No Mrs. Potts singing songs about being our guest, unfortunately. Still, the sight of stony faces peering out of the fireplace mantle, slowly tracking Belle with their eyes, is enchanting ... and haunting.

The magical rules regarding the Beast and his curse are quite different. Here his furred, taloned hands smoke every time he kills -- though this is merely implied, since we never actually see him hunt animals, or in fact commit violence of any kind.

He still has the magic mirror that allows the bearer to gaze upon anyone near or far, and also has a glove that instantly transports the wearer wherever they want to go. In one unintentionally funny bit, Belle zaps herself from her father's house to the Beast's castle, realizes she forgot the key he entrusted her with, blinks back to look for it and then back to the castle again.

I really enjoyed the self-loathing Marais brought to the role, though I must say I found Belle (Josette Day) a dreadful bore. She's simply a reflection of a feminine ideal here -- beautiful, humble, devoted -- rather than a distinctive individual.

Belle has evil sisters (no step; they share the same father) who constantly plot against Belle and humiliate her. It's interesting how in fairy tales and mythology sisters are almost always at war in some way, and never have a deep and meaningful bond.

She also has a layabout brother, whose best friend is Avenant, who wishes to marry Belle but is continually rebuffed. He's also played by Marais, who additionally appears as the Prince that the Beast turns into when Avenant is shot dead by an arrow while trying to break into the Beast's treasure trove. Avenant then turns into the Beast, and the Beast, who had just died, turns into the Prince, who happens to look exactly like Avenant.

I confess the metaphysical logistics of the story left me baffled. Especially when you consider the final dialogue between the Prince and Belle, in which she confesses that she really had loved Avenant, and only refused him out of loyalty to her father. I thought the whole point of the fable was that True Love conquers all; apparently, it's actually True Love needs another True Love to die before it can live.

At the risk of offending film purists, while I cherish the stupendous beauty of Cocteau's version, I still much prefer Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." It's just a more ambitious, fully realized version of a riveting piece of mythology.

3 stars out of four

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