Among the many different international communities represented through a collection of films, the Criterion Collection has an especially strong fondness for the French. French cinema is distinct from others in the rest of the world; glossy and poetic like Hollywood, but with far more edge and style to them. And the whole breadth of French cinematic history is well represented within the Collection. In fact, the very first Criterion title released at the launch of the brand was a classic French film; Jean Renoir’s anti-war masterpiece Grand Illusion (1937), carrying Spine #1 in the collection. Renoir, often looked at as the godfather of French cinema, has 11 films in total found in the Criterion library, including his international hit, The Rules of the Game (1939, #216), considered by many as one of the greatest films ever made. Criterion also spotlights perhaps the most influential period of French cinema, the New Wave, with a whole host of notable films that best represent the movement. New Wave icons, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, in particular have many films made available through the Criterion label, including some of their most famous like The 400 Blows (1959, #5) and Breathless (1960, #408). Even the quirky comedies of Jacques Tati (Playtime, 1967, #112) and the sumptuous musicals of Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964, #716) receive the Criterion treatment. But there is one title in the Criterion Collection that not only stands out as a remarkable piece of film art, but also signifies the very definition of a French film. And it’s a story that’s both timeless and internationally appealing. You might even say, it’s a tale as old as time. Of course, I am speaking about the classic fairy tale feature from Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete (1946, #6), more commonly know to English speaking audiences as Beauty and the Beast.
The story is one of the most renowned and famous fairy tales told all around the world, but it is also one that is undeniably French in both origin and in it’s character. First written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740, the story has been adapted and re-adapted constantly in many different forms. Though brought to life in many different ways over time, the story does lend itself best to the medium of cinema, and the first truly outstanding version of this story came about through the imagination of Jean Cocteau. Cocteau was a true Renaissance man during his heyday; excelling in a variety of arts, including painting, poetry, as well as novel writing and playwriting. He only made a handful of films, but the few that he did make have withstood as iconic works of art praised by the entire film community. In particular, he was an innovator when it came to special effects in movies. To him, playing around with camera and editing tricks were a form of real life magic, and he styled himself as a cinematic magician of sorts. I guess that’s what made a fairy tale story like Beauty and the Beast so appealing to him. It was the perfect opportunity for him to put on the cinematic equivalent of a magic show, using every trick of the trade to make the fantastical feel real. And like many other French films, Beauty and the Beast is self aware of what it wants to be. The opening credits even pulls back the curtains to let the audience know that they are being treated to the illusion of reality; with Cocteau and his two lead actors Jean Marais (The Beast) and Josette Day (Belle) writing their names on a chalkboard in the studio, followed by a stagehand holding a clapboard before the story even begins. It’s a highly influential film for both French and world cinema, and it’s no doubt that it’s beloved status gave the story more prosperity, inevitably leading to the other most notable version; the animated musical by Disney. With a legacy like that, it’s no wonder that the movie has been given Criterion’s honored recognition.
Cocteau’s version of the fairy tale is far more faithful to the original 18th century story than more contemporary ones; especially more than Disney’s. The story focuses on a young woman from a small village in the French countryside named Belle (Day). She is the youngest child of a wealthy trader, whose riches are more often than not squandered on the lavish tastes of Belle’s two older sisters Felicity (Mila Parely) and Adelaide (Nane Germon). Not only is Belle responsible for picking up the slack of her slovenly sisters in the household chores, but she is often subjugated to the sometimes unwanted advances of a handsome admirer, Avenant (Marais). Belle’s father (Marcel Andre) leaves on business and Belle asks simply for a single rose as a gift on his return. After getting lost on the way, her father stumbles into a lavish castle, with fixtures that magically come to life to serve and wait on him. As he attempts to leave, he plucks a rose from the garden only to be confronted by the master of the castle, a fearsome Beast (Jean Marais again). The Beast shows him mercy, just as long as someone takes his place as the Beast’s prisoner. When the father returns home, Belle selflessly volunteers, but her father refuses. After her father takes ill, Belle leaves on her own to spare him and become the Beast’s prisoner. At the castle, Belle learns of the agonizing toll of the curse that made the Beast who he is, and how it tortures him everyday. She begins to take pity on him, and he in turn shows a softer, more caring side beneath all of his gruffness. However, after leaving the Beast for a visit to see her ailing father, she sadly comes to the realization that she has left him vulnerable, and that there are others who seek to do him harm; especially the envious Avenant.
Unfortunately for Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, despite it’s legendary status, it’s always going to have to face scrutiny when compared to Disney’s blockbuster. But it’s just the reality; Beauty and the Beast has been adapted into two genuine cinematic masterpieces. Disney’s version is different in many ways (not least of which it being a musical), but it owes a great amount of debt to Cocteau’s version for some of it’s more imaginative elements. For one thing, Jean Cocteau was the first to imagine all of the architecture and furnishings of the Beast castle as living things. Some of the examples in his version are quite striking, including the wall candle fixtures fashioned to look like human arms, and were in fact provided by actors standing behind the facade wall. It’s simply executed, but hauntingly beautiful when seen in the film. The same with the statuary in the fireplace mantle, who eerily stare back at us from the background. Disney took this element and went a step further by giving the household objects names and distinct personalities, creating the beloved characters of Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts in the process. Cocteau also invented one other element that Disney’s version also owes a great debt to. The character of Avenant, Belle’s persistent human suitor, is not from the original story, and was created by Cocteau as a way of counterpointing the growing sensitive relationship that Belle has with the Beast. So, you can thank Jean Cocteau for creating what would eventually be the villainous Gaston. Of course, there are still many difference that still give the Disney version some distinction. They excised Belle’s older sisters (probably because they were too close in resemblance to Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters), and of course the animation medium gives them a lot more freedom to fully portray the magical elements of the story.
What is most interesting about Cocteau’s version is the portrayals of it’s two lead characters. In particular, Jean Marais as the Beast. I find it interesting that Marais filled dual roles in the film; as the Beast and as Avenant. It shows great range in his ability to portray such antithesis characters, even down to the difference in their body language. Of course, Marais is able to pull this off when his face is covered in a giant fur mask, but it’s still a feat that his performance shines through even with the extra encumbrance. Admittedly, the cat like face mask provided by make-up artist Hagop Arakelian looks pretty ridiculous when compared to work done today, but it is iconic in it’s own way. With the air of aristocratic sophistication mixed in with the mangy feral characteristics of a wild animal, the Beast in Cocteau’s film is an unforgettable creation, and one strongly reliant on the talents of a gifted actor. It wouldn’t be until the Disney version that would would see a fully realized Beast brought to the screen, with nothing left on the surface of the human inside, but given the limitations that Cocteau had to work with, his Beast still is a work of creative art. The portrayal of Belle is an interesting one as well. In a way, the selfless girl who uses her perceptive mind to understand the Beast from the get go comes off as a bit more subtle than Disney’s defiant, book-obsessed princess. Not that Disney’s Belle is any less welcome; she is in fact an icon in her own right, and thankfully a female role model that stresses intelligence over beauty. But I appreciate Josette Day’s Belle as well. She captures the character’s heart and shows that she is far more than a thing of beauty in the story, but rather one defined by her compassion more than anything else. Considering when this movie was made, Belle could have easily been portrayed as just a pretty trophy to be sought after (which would have been the case if this was a Hollywood picture in the 1940’s). Thankfully, with the more French sensibilities towards male and female identities, we have a more balanced portrayal of our heroine Belle, and one that I’m sure left a big impact on all future fairy tales princesses as a result.
The Criterion Collection again has devoted a great amount of time and effort to restoring this classic to it’s full glory. Because of the film’s beloved status in France, it has been thankfully preserved in their national film archives. The original nitrate negative still exists, but time has taken it’s toll and care was still needed to bring the film back to it’s original glory. In 1995, the original negative was given over to the Centre national de l’audiovisuel in Luxembourg to do a full restoration of picture and sound to create a new restored master negative for digital preservation. The results are astounding, and help to greatly enhance the meticulous work that Jean Cocteau put into the visual effects of the film. The movie utilized a lot of in camera and editing effects to give the movie a more magical feel, including a spectacular slow motion sequence of Belle running through the halls of the Beast’s castle in this almost ethereal way. With the film properly restored to the correct 24 frames a second that it needs run consistently at, this sequence is able to play out in the best possible way for the effect to work. The cleaned-up image also looks excellent, with gray levels in the black and white photography feeling natural and true to life. Scratches are minimized and the movie looks as polished today as some of it’s other beloved contemporaries from Hollywood. In addition, the monaural soundtrack is free of distracting hisses and pops, and sounds natural and clean. It is from this 1995 restoration that Criterion derived their high definition transfer from, and it looks amazing on blu-ray. Sometimes the detail does expose the seams that Cocteau probably didn’t want exposed in the image, but a lot of the effects still hold up to the scrutiny of high definition, including the Beast’s make-up. It’s another stellar restoration by Criterion, meeting their already high standard.
In addition to the transfer, the blu-ray also includes some worthwhile supplements that round out the package. First of all, the most substantial feature is a bonus soundtrack that can be played with the movie. Composer Phillip Glass crafted several operas based on the movies of Jean Cocteau, and the one for Beauty and the Beast is included in full here, presented in 5.1 surround sound. It’s a great option for anyone interested in hearing the opera synced up with the movie that it’s meant to play with. Criterion has also provided two audio commentary tracks recorded just for this edition. The first is by film historian Arthur Knight, who shares insight into the cinematic contributions that the movie has made, and the other is by cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling, who discusses the film’s cultural significance, as well as it’s influences. In addition, there is a lengthy documentary that coincided with the film’s restoration in 1995 called Screening at the Majestic. It features interesting interviews from many of the cast and crew, telling us about the making of the film and it’s legacy. There is also an interview clip conducted on Luxembourg television from 1995 with the movie’s cinematographer Henri Alekan, who gives an interesting insight into what it was like working with Jean Cocteau and how they were able to create some of those amazing visual effects. There is also an excerpt from a French television expose on famed make-up artist Hagop Arakelian, where he talks about and demonstrates his craft. Sadly, this feature doesn’t go into enough detail about his work on the Beast in the film. Lastly, there is an interesting featurette on the film’s restoration, as well as galleries devoted to behind-the-scenes pictures and publicity stills, and an original theatrical trailer, directed and narrated by Cocteau himself. It’s another full package that lives up to Criterion’s high standards.
Upon watching Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, you see why it is widely proclaimed as one of cinema’s crowning achievements. Just through the imagination of it’s visual effects alone does this movie achieve masterpiece status. There are some effects in here that are so remarkably done that even after 70 years, it will still leave you wondering how they were able to pull them off. There’s one bit where an ugly string of garlic turns into a string of pearls within the same shot that still tricks my eye every time, because it’s done in the illusion of one continuous unbroken shot. I’ve watched the movie a few times now, and I still can’t spot the edit. It’s cinematic magic like that that defines the movie, but it also stands as the defining example of a French film. I’m positive that it’s overwhelming French identity is the reason why Disney chose to preserve the French setting in their own version, as opposed to making up some Euro-centric, unnamed kingdom for the setting like they had done to their fairy tale films in the past. There is a strong connection between the elegance of Jean Cocteau’s version and the extravagance of Disney’s, and I’m sure that it’s one built upon admiration. The people who worked on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast I’m sure aspired to follow Cocteau’s lead, and try their best to achieve something close to what he accomplished. It’s a high standard set by both versions that I hope the upcoming live action musical remake by Disney also aspires to. My worry is that it’s going to be too derivative of one and not enough of the other. Jean Cocteau showed with his imagination what the medium of cinema can do, and he demonstrated that with a few simple tricks, he could create true magic on the big screen. Criterion has done an outstanding job of preserving the magic on display here and my hope is that those of us introduced to the story through Disney’s version will be able to discover this version in our adulthood and see just how magical cinematic art can be.