Last night a friend and I watched Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) for the very first time. Luckily, we were able to see the restored version of this French masterpiece on the big screen.
It is hard to remember just how radical and audacious this film was when it was released in post-war France in 1946. Purge any memories of Disney’s singing, dancing candlestick and teapot, for this is a film for adults more than children. Cocteau employs his tableware for more suggestive purposes (Belle “toys with a knife that is more than a knife,” observes Roger Ebert). Cocteau’s fairy-tale fantasy is teeming with such symbolism.
There are many elements of the film that may prove challenging for contemporary film-goers: the exaggerated stage acting and pantomime, and the hairy Chewbacca costume, which was cutting edge in its day, can be difficult to overlook at times. Cocteau was brought up on late 19th century French melodrama, and it shows. Yet his highly original fantasy transcends its era, and there is much in his film to relish.
Cocteau was a poet, painter, playwright, actor, novelist, and set designer, as well as a filmmaker, and his Beauty and the Beast is more like visual poetry than a traditional film narrative. The dialogue is spare, but the scenery lavish.