Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête is at once deeply fantastical in its fairy tale set design and ethereal cinematography and strikingly real in its class observations and human behavior. It is a film that bears its director's signature quite literally, opening with his deftly scribbling the actors' names in chalk as a helper quickly erases the board so Cocteau can keep writing and subsequently using a hand-written scroll with his John Hancock to set the movie in motion. Cocteau even kicks off the film with the clack of a soundboard, the self-reflexive touches the cinematic equivalent to tucking a child into bed before opening up the storybook.
Like a storybook, Beauty and the Beast uses few words, all the better to imprint on a young mind. Instead, Cocteau, cinematographer Henri Alekan and designer Christian Berard craft a world of clashing reality and ephemera, capturing banal bourgeois village life and frighteningly dense woods before moving into the full-on fantasy of the Beast's castle. The aesthetic, which draws from the engravings of Gustave Doré, is at once static and vibrant, using various camera tricks to bring out the magic of its bizarre sights. This is a poetic film, to the point that the various mentions of children's story I've made may be wholly inapt; though I've seen some of Cocteau's poems and artwork, this is the first of his films I've viewed, yet I understand immediately his quest to find the "classical avant-garde." No one would use a fairy tale in such daring fashion until Catherine Breillat put out Bluebeard more than 60 years later.
Disney's wildly successful animated version of the tale did an admirable job of making Belle a strong, intelligent character whom one believed warmed to the Beast through an exchange of genuine personalities rather than plot convenience, but it also failed to properly establish the woman's regular life before meeting the Beast. Cocteau, being a French artist, spends time evoking bourgeois aspirations of Belle's family: where Belle innocently cleans and cares for her father, her sisters primp and preen and ask for ludicrously exotic gifts like monkeys just to make them that much more noticeable. Belle's filial piety, presented in the modern update as the result of her self-sure attitude not blinding her to devotion to a loved one, is here more openly the product of a gender-restrictive society that places the onus of care upon the children and especially the youngest daughter. The son, Ludovic, puts his whole family's wealth at risk for a loan he hopes will catapult him up the ladder. The film is at its talkiest among the family, their arrogant posturing and clueless revelry stressing how boring and quotidian they really are under their flashy dress and sense of self-importance.
Once Belle finds herself in the Beast's castle to take her father's place in imprisonment, however, the film quiets down and settles into visual fantasy. The castle features some gorgeous and unsettling aspects, such as candelabras held to the wall by human arms that extend outward as people pass, smoke swirling around the unlit candles until the wicks catch flames as Cocteau runs his film backward. Mirrors and double exposure are also used for various effects, but it's remarkable how these holdover tricks from the silent era feel brand new for their time and fresh even today. Cocteau made this film long after filmmakers finally got a handle on how to re-incorporate visual artistry into cinema in the wake of talkies, yet his vision is the perfect blend of the traditional—not only in its choice of subject material but in its use of old techniques—and the experimental, which comes out in Cocteau's unexpectedly emotional grasp on out-there fantasy.
Of course, nothing in the film strikes the balance between the emotional and the technical like the Beast himself. Jean Marais, Cocteau's lover, plays both Avenant, a village man who pines for Belle, and the Beast. In his own skin, Marais is an Adonis, his sculpted jawline and steel gaze striking but overpowered by Marais playing Avenant as an arrogant, vapid fool. As the Beast, however, Marais is something different entirely: Cocteau envisioned a full mask for the character, but Marais argued instead for a makeup-process that would take far, far longer to put on but would allow proper facial expressions. As the Beast, Marais is physically repulsive yet instantly disarming. He projects a vulnerability and longing through the matted fur and fangs. His curse has already humbled him, and when Belle arrives, he's so taken aback and won over by both her beauty and her sacrifice that his first words to her are a completely genuine assurance that she is no danger around him. Cocteau and Marais place such humanity in the Beast that, when the curse finally lifts and Marais reappears in the flesh as a man with Avenant's looks and the Beast's soul, the effect is dissonant. Belle is even visibly disappointed, a feeling shared by the audience. Marlene Dietrich, who attended the premiere with Cocteau, summed up the emotion when she purportedly called out to the screen, "Where is my beautiful Beast?
Cocteau's film is pure magic, altering the audience's perspective until the vision of bourgeois comfort slowly comes to seem like hell while the isolated, haunted castle is the lovely escape. Belle's family falls into poverty in her absence, but Cocteau suggests this is as much due to her missing goodness as it is the result of the son's unwise loan. Another filmmaker might have forced such implications, but Cocteau wraps up everything so beautifully in his majestic, unorthodox vision that everything flows into one whole. I cannot think of another film, whether a live-action movie or a Disney feature, that so perfectly captures the feel of a fairy tale, a clear moral subsumed into a transporting, imaginative narrative that paints pictures even without the accompanying illustrations.