Beauty and the Beast (1946), or La Belle et la Bête, has always struck me as an eat-your-vegetables kind of movie. The cover art, the age, and its Frenchness painted a picture of expressionism and weirdness. I feared a rebuke to my enjoyment of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) as too flowery or childish. But, of course, the Disney version takes some things from Jean Cocteau’s film while altering the story and teaching simpler moral lessons. That leaves plenty for Cocteau’s film to fill in. La Belle et la Bête is experimental and artistic, but it is in a visual language we can all understand. In that way it isn’t too weird to watch. But it still isn’t the kind of beautiful fantasy with which one falls in love and recommends to all his friends. Not unless there is a strong level of nostalgia built in. But this movie is very nostalgiable. But I arrived too late.
Belle’s father (Marcel André) has hit upon hard times. His fortunes failed when his ships were lost at sea. Thus he, his three daughters, the evil pair Félicie (Mila Parély) and Adélaïde (Nane Germon), the modest and put-upon Belle (Josette Day), and his son Ludovic (Michel Auclair) are left in poverty. One day, however, his ship has come in and he travels to town to recover his property. His evil daughters request outlandish things, but Belle simply wants a rose. But when he gets to town, the money has been applied to clear his debts and he is again without fortune. On the way home, he gets lost and finds himself in a great, magical castle where he eats and sleeps. On his way out, he picks a rose for Belle and, from nowhere, comes the Beast (Jean Marais) who holds some strong attachment to his roses. The penalty for theft of these roses is death! However, the man may substitute his own life with that of a daughter. He has three days to return or to send his daughter. Once home, he gives Belle the rose and plans to leave the next day to die for his crime. But Belle, out of duty or guilt, leaves that night for the castle. There, she begins her relationship with the Beast who asks her every night if she will marry him.
Jean Cocteau’s screenplay is, like the acting styles, so affected that they are only partly bearable. Had the film been in English, I would not have lasted the full hour and a half. The acting is so over the top on the physical side and so painfully bland in the delivery. Beast reads out the terms of his deal with Belle’s father like a train conductor. But something super interesting, and maybe this would have thoroughly improved the experience, the Criterion Collection includes a track that maps the opera by Philip Glass, which is based scene-by-scene on the film, directly on the movie. That makes the ludicrous acting and dialogue into a context where it’s almost normal. As I wasn’t very fond of the score by Georges Auric, a little Philip Glass sounded like a vast improvement. I watched the slow motion sequence and was a bit disappointed. Where Auric is loud and inappropriate, using musical triumph when there is no triumph, Glass is understated. That’s Glass. Expecting romanticism out of a minimalist is asking for disappointment.
Like many older films, its quality grows in the recollection of it. The way they told stories, and none moreso than in Beauty and the Beast, was very choppy with heavily laden scenes plunking themes and ideas in front of you. So as I wrote that premise above, I remembered how one of the evil sisters castigates Belle, after the price of the crime is known, for her elaborate modesty that has actually caused the immediate trouble. I read an excerpt from the Criterion book that came with the DVD (thanks Queens Public Library!) about how Cocteau had shot the transformation sequence to make people miss the Beast and be disappointed by the pretty boy in his place. Thinking on it, I said, “Yeah, I guess I can see that.” I typically watch older movies as unironically as possible to avoid getting hung up acting style—irony, I find, is typically in the dialogue if anywhere—so I missed that observation. I wanted to watch the slow-motion sequence again because…I’m not sure why. But if I started it up again, I’d see those (frankly, dumb) opening credits and the scatter-brained prologue and groan audibly.
To me Beauty and the Beast is another masterpiece of craftsmanship in its time that is undone by time and poor storytelling. That poverty, which is one of manner and style rather than carelessness, may be open to change as I change, but time goes only one way. When the visual highlight is Belle being pulled along on a cart against flowing curtains, clearly, the ceiling is a low one. The slow motion was quite nice, but is that the moment of the dream? Is that awkwardness of pacing, whether objective or subjective, reparable? I think not. What, then, is the value of the film outside of history or a kind of ideas palette for filmmakers? Very little, I should think, but history and inspiration aren’t too bad.