Monday, February 12, 2018

Beauty and the Beast (1946)

Director: Jean Cocteau

Motion picture fairy tales may be synonymous with Walt Disney animated features. It may be a difficult genre to execute, but it should never be viewed as a monopoly. Case in point is Jean Cocteau’s 1946 live action feature Beauty and the Beast. 45 years before the famed animated feature came an adaptation that was truer to source material and manifested a sense of creative fantasy unlike many films could accomplish at that time. Adapted by an imaginative French artist this French fairy tale received telling that remains timeless and awe inspiring as ever.

Beauty and the Beast is a french romantic fantasy of a girl who takes the place of her father as prisoner to an unfathomable beast, who desires to marry her. When a down on his luck merchant (Marcel AndrĂ©) is curse to death by a mysterious Beast (Jean Marais), one of the merchant’s young daughters, Belle (Josette Day), sacrifices herself to take his place so that he may live. Imprisoned in an enchanted castle, Beast uses elegance to unsuccessfully entice Belle into marrying him. With time Belle begins to see the good in Beast, something no one else has could see. Through tests of trust Beast allows Belle to return to care for her ill father, with her promise to return.

While caring for her father, Belle’s selfish siblings and possible suitor Avenant (also played by Jean Marais), attempt to trick Belle into staying home while planning to steal Beast’s great treasures locked away by a key entrusted to Belle. Realizing that breaking her promise will kill Beast, Belle returns only for Beast to die in her weeping arms. But when Avenant is doomed by the curse of the beast by attempting to steal the treasure, Beast is returned to life in his natural form as a Prince. Happy and in love the Prince and Belle whisk off to be wed, where they will be joined by her loving father, and served by her envious siblings.

This adaptation of the classic French fairy tale is a work of cinematic magic. In a move that can possibly be viewed as desperate, the film opens with forward that requests the audience to put away reason and allow the innocence of fantasy to take over. What unfolds is a work of unparalleled enchantment, that even to an audience accustomed to the basic idea of the story can find themselves entangled in the drama and magic of this wonderfully variation.

Director Jean Cocteau delivers a style that for its time was wholly unique with live action fantasy pictures. A well-rounded artist, poet, and author aside from his time working in film, Cocteau brings a freshness with an effort at making such a fantastical story for the mature French audience. As a director Cocteau is master of utilizing the frame, bringing with it complexities of layers, movement, and impressionism that can make audiences see new things each viewing. Beast’s castle is a minimalist set of lavish pieces, including doors, tables, fireplace, busts, and candleholders, set to plain black backgrounds, similar to a stage play, but with the way Cocteau stages actor and action one would swear there was much more to the set. His creativity allows the audience to fill in these blank spaces in their minds, knowing well that the setting in the mind is far greater than anything he could have had constructed on his limited soundstages. This avant garde style is so very different from anything American audiences would be accustomed to.

The costumes are wonderfully detailed, almost as if stripped right from Renaissance paintings. Sound design made the picture at times feel larger, adding to the drama or tension while subtle mixing. A wonderful example of this is during a verbal dispute between Belle’s family, during which we begin to hear the yapping of a small unseen dog, adding to the friction between the griping, selfish family members and Belle and her father. The poorest aspect in the filmmaking can be seen in editing, as there are a few jarring cuts within the picture that one may feel they could have fixed.

Of course, the greatest work comes surrounding the character of Beast portrayed by Jean Marais. The make-up was obviously cumbersome and restricting, covering Marais completely, including a full mane and even hairs and fangs glued to his face to complete costume, a process said to have taken five hours a day to apply. Marais projected the character masterfully through his eyes and mouth movements to deliver a character range that allows us to see the emotion coming through this elaborate costume, from anger and rage, to disperse, love, and compassion. Other effects, such as ears that moved reacting to sounds and musical smoke that emitted from his fur all come together to deliver one marvelous character of fantasy and supernatural. In many cases critics and viewers state how much they miss the Beast when he is transformed into Jean Marais’ Prince, because they felt more for the well delivered, sympathetic character than the prettier human character.

To bring the enchanted castle to life was delivered by the creative way the castle’s objects come to life. So simple, but done in a way where you forget the practicality and fall into the fanciful execution. Candle holders resembling arms light up, move, and extinguish on their own, Stone busts move and watch the visitors of the castle. From a contemporary perspective, is in not difficult to spot the relative easy nature to create such special effects by simply painting human arms or faces to resemble the architecture of the castle, but it is the manner in which all these “actors” move that make them seem supernatural in themselves. Uses of slow motion, playing film in reverse for special effects, both uncommon at this time, as well as the living objects deliver the fantasy of this story to an unparalleled level. Tied down by what Cocteau could record on a camera instead of relying of post-production effects manifests just how creative the director was in making this story as tangible as possible.

Despite his limited film experience Jean Cocteau was a masterfully creative mind, utilizing skills learned in the study and execution of various arts, including writing, painting, stage direction, and producing a film such as this. Cocteau’s relationship with star Jean Marais was one that resulting in the two being lovers and Marais becoming Cocteau’s muse. Marais dedication to Cocteau brought both men great success in a relationship that lasted to Cocteau’s death in 1963 and beyond, with Marias producing a memoir of his longtime friend and partner.

This version of Beauty and the Beast can be view at first glance, especially by later generations, as a silly fantasy adaption from a time lesser equipped to construct such a live action telling. However once viewers allow themselves to dedicate attention to watching the picture it wins over audiences repeatedly. Even in years long after a Disney animated version, tweaks in the story, and a new age in special effects critics and historians are still taken by the charm and magic of this version. With only minor changes to flesh out supporting characters and make Belle’s imprisonment more of an act of love, its ability to stay true to the source material shares a timelessness many fantasy pictures fail to achieve.
To this day you can find film historian and critics naming Beauty and the Beast (1946) among lists of greatest films ever made. The technology was far simpler then, but to watch this picture is to watch an artist paint on a canvas, or fashion a sculpture from marble. It brought audiences something new, yet very familiar, and it captures the magic and imagination of viewers looking past the contemporary mass market motion pictures of the modern cinema.

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