Jean Cocteau was that rare thing; an accomplished artist who could transfer his mind with ease, and with vision, from one distinct medium to another. Not content with being merely a poet or a playwright (or even a boxing manager, somewhat bizarrely), Jean Maurice Eugene Clement Cocteau was also a bloody brilliant filmmaker, with his 1946 fairytale La Belle et la Bête perhaps being his most exciting work, and is easily one of the best fantasy films ever made. There is a reason Disney’s own take on Beauty and the Beast almost half a century later follows the template of Cocteau’s predecessor so vividly.
If you’ve seen that latter film (and I’m sure you have), you’ll know the basic storyline; pretty put upon girl, princely beast who needs to be loved to be saved, would-be hero chauvinist getting in the way etc. It’s perhaps even more lightweight here, where our Gaston analogue, Avenant, is part of a wider attempt by Belle’s haughty sisters to get the Beast’s riches. They’re a rather stock Fairy-tale family that serve to detract from the magic at the story’s centre, akin to that of the step-sisters in Cinderella or the parents in Hansel and Gretel. The real power comes from within the Beast’s castle walls, both literally and thematically. The growing romance between Belle, played wonderfully by Josette Day, and the Beast (Jean Marais, who doubles up as Avenant in a nice little motif), has a real dynamic to it so that, when trouble arrives near the film’s end, the stakes really feel raised.
Its simplicity gives it a far more folk-like quality than the sweeping epic we have come to expect from the story post-Disney, but this is not to say that the film lacks grandeur; Cocteau’s set designs are beautiful, clearly influenced by his work on stage. The film makes fantastic use of fairly small spaces, loaded however with strong uses of lighting and prop work; Disney’s transformation of the Prince’s servants into household objects isn’t a staple of the tale, but rather an addition originally made by Cocteau, taken from another French fairytale. That Cocteau’s servants have been left only with their hands, however, aids the castle’s intensely ethereal feel, rendering all as a dream, a double of reality that finds its greatest expression in the final shot, mimicking the woodprints of Gustave D’Or to see the whole thing off with a real sense of majesty. In a world where fantasy had seemingly been changed forever by MGM’s The Wizard of Oz some years earlier, La Belle et la Bête has its place as a refutation of the vast explosion of imagination, in favour of something concentrated and controlled. The results really are magnificent.