Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University, UK)

‘Deserting the human race’: Introduction to La Belle et La Bête (Jean Cocteau, 1946)

Dukes cinema, 27th Jan, 2014

(This was the introduction I gave for the screening of a new digital restoration of this film, which was screened within a series of ‘Gothic’ films)

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La Belle et La Bête (Beauty and the Beast) is the second of the six extant films that were directed by the prolific French poet, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, artist and director, Jean Cocteau.

The film is an adaptation of the French fairy-tale that was first published as a novella  by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740 and then later reworked and shortened by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont. Published in 1756, this is the version of the story that has become the key source for all subsequent adaptations. Beauty and the Beast is one of the most well known examples of the ‘literary fairy tale’. These were first produced by groups of writers, chiefly aristocratic women, in 18th France who gathered in Salons. Thus they were initially intended for educated adult audiences, as upper-class women would entertain themselves and one another by retelling stories adapted from traditional folk tales, improvising and embellishing them. Storytelling in this context was a form of competitive intellectual game-playing as well as entertainment, a demonstration of the wit and creativity of the storyteller.

Literary historians have argued that these stories were often a coded means by which the women could imagine how their restricted lives might be improved – these fantasy narratives were a highly symbolic and oblique way of telling allegorical stories about contemporary reality as they experienced it. At a certain point in the 18th century, however, women such as Beaumont began transcribing and publishing the stories, which made them available to a wider audience and, in particular, to bourgeois and aristocratic children. As the audience for the stories changed, the function of them changed too so that one of the principal aims of the literary fairy tale became that of providing moral instruction to children – the very small minority of children who could read or were read to. For instance, the version of Beauty and the Beast that Cocteau worked from was published in a volume pointedly entitled, The Children’s Journal, or Conversations between a wise governess and several of her pupils of the highest quality.

There are certain features that came to characterise the literary fairy tale: they were short (so that they were reproducible – they could be easily read and memorised and lend themselves to retelling and adaptation); they were didactic or instructional (teaching the readers certain values or ideologies);  and, in particular, they restate repeatedly the message that power lies naturally with the aristocracy.

For instance, in terms of its ideological significance, Beaumont’s version, is often understood as a story that asserts the importance of honouring promises, the value of women’s self-denial (sacrificing their desires for the interests of others), and uncritical devotion to one’s father. However, there is, of course, some ambiguity in the story, which is one of the reasons why Beauty and the Beast has remained fascinating to readers and audiences. Beaumont was a progressive thinker in the context of the period in which she lived. As a governess herself, she wanted women to have more access to education and more prominent social roles. At the same time, however, like many of the women attending the salons she was committed to the patriarchal social structure in which she lived. Similarly, Beauty can be understood as brave and determined (she is far more courageous than her father or the other men in the story) or she can be seen as submissive, while the beast, the symbolic epitome of masculinity, is both repulsive and fascinating, violently aggressive and loving, animalistic and civilised – as one of Beauty’s sisters observes in the film, for instance, in a sardonic comment on masculinity, ‘Lots of husbands are hairy and horned’. Jack Zipes suggests that what makes the story so powerful, and why it has been retold so regularly, and also adapted for film numerous times, is precisely that it lays bare and dramatises these contradictions. The story concerns characters wrestling with contradictory desires, instincts and obligations.

Production began on the film in August 1945 and it was apparently a difficult shoot. In the immediate aftermath of the war in which resources were limited, they were working with old, unreliable cameras that frequently jammed, damaged lenses, film stock of onconistsent quality, and even had trouble sourcing fabric for dressing sets and cutting costumes. It took them a lot of work, for example, to find unpatched sheets for a scene where they’re drying linen in the garden. The house where Beauty and her family live was also next to a military airfield and their sound-recordings were often ruined by training flights passing overhead. Cocteau himself suffered for much of the shoot with skin rashes and excruciatingly painful boils that led him to resume an opium addiction, and he claimed that his hair turned white over the months spent working on the film. In his production diary, he reconciles himself to these difficulties with the consolation that heroic suffering is essential for the production of poetry.

However, these difficulties aren’t evident in the film, which is visually sumptuous and has a lightness of touch and a clarity that belies the frustrations of the shoot, and it manages to capture the strangeness of the fairytale narrative very successfully.

Cocteau didn’t direct many films – although he enjoyed collaborating, he saw himself primarily as a poet, and preferred to work alone – but what drew him to cinema was the sense that it was the best medium in which to convey a sense of what he called the ‘Marvellous’ – inexplicable, irrational interruptions in the fabric of normality. As he explained it,

The Marvellous would be […] a simple human miracle, very commonplace, which consists of giving to persons and objects a certain “unusualness” which defies analysis. (43, 1977)

This is a concept that was central to surrealist art and literature (and André Breton’s writing in particular), and so it is unsurprising that Cocteau’s first film, Blood of a Poet (1930), is one of the avant-garde classics of surrealist cinema.

In terms of style and structure, Beauty and the Beast is a much more conventional film – Cocteau said that Blood of a Poet was a ‘film for fifty film connoisseurs’, whereas Beauty and the Beast was made for a wider audience. Nevertheless, it retains a number of elements – strange, unexplained details, photographic effects, abrupt edits, as well as theatrical tricks such as ‘Pepper’s ghost’ – that are familiar from surrealist cinema in order to render the ‘unusualness’ of the space inhabited by the beast. These include the uncanny living statues in the beast’s mansion, the candelabras supported by human arms, the use of slow-motion and reverse-motion cinematography, the rather disjointed narrative, the disconnected relationship between music and on-screen action and the use of silence, and the curiously theatrical style of some of the performances.

But, of course, the figure of the beast himself is the clearest embodiment of Cocteau’s concept of the marvellous – the inexplicable, irrational disruption of everyday reality. Perhaps the most fascinating and uncanny element of the film, he is played by Jean Marais, Cocteau’s lover, who had suggested the idea for the film in the first place. Like Cocteau, he too suffered during the film since Cocteau insisted that rather than wear a rubber mask, his make-up should be glued painstakingly to his skin so that his own face remained visible underneath the fur. As a result, he recalled:

It took me five hours to make up – that meant thirteen hours a day in the studio. Because of the fangs attached to my teeth, all I could eat was mush, and that by the spoonful. Between takes I scarcely opened my mouth lest the makeup become unglued: no one understood what I said, and that exasperated me.

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But the consequence of this physical discomfort is a very memorable cinematic figure. Indeed, for Cocteau, Marais’ commitment to art was an inspiration and he wrote that, as a consequence of this passion, when Marais played the beast he went through a transformation, ‘deserting the human race for the animal race.’ This vivid phrase describes both the transformation undergone by the actor, and also the decision made by Beauty within the narrative to offer herself to the beast. More broadly still, it is suggestive of the potential of cinematic fantasy to transport the viewer to an imaginary and impossible space.

The beast’s spectacular costume is the central attraction of a visually rich film – the production designer used paintings by Johannes Vermeer and prints by the French illustrator Gustave Doré as reference points for designing the interiors. This is a film that is all about light in one respect – it is central to the film’s aesthetic and the precise lighting scheme establishes a distinction between the glowing sunshine of Beauty’s world, and the shadowy world of the Beast, which is characterised by low-key chiaroscuro lighting, silhouettes and back-lighting, luminous smoke and fog, and dark rooms and corridors punctuated by sparkling highlights. Cocteau chose Agfa film stock over Kodak because, he said, he wanted the film to have the ‘soft gleam of hand-polished old silver’. It is a very accurate description of the film’s distinctive antiqued metallic lustre

Cocteau was in an unhappy situation more generally when they were making the film. He had lived in Paris during the occupation and was accused by the BBC in 1944 of being a collaborator having published an article in 1942 praising the Nazi sculptor Arno Breker (one of Hitler’s favourite artists). He wasn’t a fascist, and he was investigated and acquitted after the war by two tribunals, but would no doubt have been especially keen to put the war behind him.

Jack Zipes has suggested one of the remarkable features of Cocteau’s version of Beauty and the Beast is that it emphasises more strongly than any other film adaptation, the oedipal dimensions of the story: the daughter’s self-sacrificing devotion to her father. This is undoubtedly a plausible interpretation of the film, and the simple story invites a number of others; the American composer, Philip Glass, who has written operas based on three of Cocteau’s films including this one (wherein Glass’s opera was performed in exact synchronisation with the film), suggests it is a film about ‘the nature of the creative process’, as well as a love story. However, it seems quite likely that a powerful attraction of the film both for Cocteau, and for audiences watching it in the ruined and impoverished environment of post-war Europe, is also that it invites us to step into a fantasy world, a simpler, apparently innocent space (like the characters within the film who pass back and forth between normality and the magical space occupied by the Beast). The film opens with a written message from Cocteau, himself, inviting viewers to suspend their cynicism and watch the film with a childlike simplicity.

The film’s initial success – and the fact that it has been revived repeatedly culminating with this pristine new restoration – suggests that cinema audiences have always been very willing to take up the invitation.

References:

Jonathan Cott, ‘A Conversation with Philip Glass on La Belle et La Bete’ from the booklet accompanying the 1995 CD release of Glass’s opera.

Arthur B. Evans (1977) Jean Cocteau and his Films of Orphic Identity. London: Associated University Presses

Elizabeth Sprigge, Jean-Jacques Kim (1968) Jean Cocteau: The Man and the Mirror. London: Victor Gollancz

Francis Steegmuller (1970) Cocteau: A Biography. London: Macmillan.

Jack Zipes (1994) Fairytale as Myth/Myth as Fairytale. Lexington: University of Kentucky