La belle et la bete (Beauty and the Beast) (Cocteau, 1946)
Cocteau holds one of the more intriguing positions among history’s directors. The few films that he felt compelled to make have been retooled by so many, often of them finding improvement. In the case of La belle et la bete, what is the consensus on Disney’s interpretation? The love narrative is much more energetic. The effects and tricks adapt incredibly well to animation. Cocteau had such a rich appreciation for animation that he would undoubtedly be ecstatic about Belles’s younger cousin. It’s undeniable that Disney created a real masterpiece in their rendering. But where did the magic come from? I argue that they and so many others have pulled it from Cocteau.
His fingerprint is immediately visible. Even the credits are absorbing. Cocteau formed a unique connection between the mainstream and the avant-garde. His imitation of Renoir is absolutely clear but, at the same time, his uninhibited and adventurous spirit created an organic variation in nearly every frame. In addition, the interaction between an intellectualized but sexual adulthood and childish fantasy is not tiresome here. As quickly as any other director, Cocteau came to possess the most vital characteristic a director can ever harness — a trust in the magic of the medium. Though today we have been disenchanted by such frequent indulgence and belief in cinematic force over magic. This is what revives Cocteau and renders him so watchable today. We need not look further than Belle’s first slow-motion entrance to the castle for an example of astonishing work. However, this ornate fable of transformation is, at least photographically, simple. Cocteau apparently instructed his DP to restrain himself and act against his adventure. The combination – and conflict, if you will – that results is exactly what makesBelle so enchanting. The co-mingling of restraint, Renoir-like precision, and a wild, poetic imagination create one film that will remain in the canon for my lifetime at least.
NOTE: This viewing was accompanied by the Glass opera composed to match the film. Glass is a magnificent composer and human. He forges a carefully indulgent score that conflicts with Cocteau in an engaging way, but still doesn’t access the character of Auric’s initial scoring. However, he rediscovers the extraordinarily high responsibility placed on “movie music.” It creates a different film, in a sense. Ultimately, I would argue that Glass produced a more interesting piece to analyze, hear and understand, but Auric frames Cocteau’s childish vision with a greater compatibility. The answer to this equation is to buy Criterion’s latest edition and hear both. It’s worth it.