My aim would be to make the beast so human, so sympathetic, so superior to men, that his transformation into Prince Charming would come as a terrible blow to beauty, condemning her to a humdrum marriage and a future that I summed up in that last sentence of all fairy tales: "and they had many children."
-Jean Cocteau, 1946.
I received a copy of Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête a while ago as a present, and I don't know why it has taken me till now to actually watch it. As soon as I read Cocteau's explanation of his film in the little press book which came with the DVD, I knew I was going to like it. And I did.
This is one of the most wonderfully surreal interpretations of Mme. Leprince de Beaumont's original aristocratic fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast. I think that most people are surprised to find out that fairy tales such as this one were not actually written for children, but for adults, in a kind of game of wit and narrative between aristocratic men and women. I suppose it was a good way to pass the time, creating stories. But it was also a form of power, the use of your intelligence as a sport. From memory, Beauty and the Beast was also written as a cautionary tale for young women regarding vanity.
Cocteau turns the cautionary overtone of the original fairy tale on its head. He provides a playful, self-reflexive and iconoclastic interpretation. It is actually beauty, rather than the beast, who is the focal point of the film, despite his comment. In fact, his comment about the beast seems to highlight beauty's main dilemma, which is still the dilemma of many women today: choosing between domesticity and the extraordinary. There is the sense though that Cocteau does not want this to be a choice that beauty has to make at all.
La Belle et la Bête is also a beautifully crafted film and there is the constant feeling that you have stepped into a surrealist painting. I'm also deeply appreciative of the decadent style of the film in light of its stark immediate context. La Belle et la Bête was made a year after the Second World War was over, and its budget was understandably limited in the context of post-war rebuilding. It seems to me as if the beauty of the film is itself a form of defiance of circumstances. I find it oddly touching that Cocteau was receiving food packages while filming La Belle et la Bête, and yet devoted money to such elaborate costumes. This is definitely a film to watch more than once.