I’m starting to dislike Disney more and more. Every time I hear about a new Disney product or character, I tend to cringe or ignore it altogether. Once the innovator in mainstream (albeit slightly tame) animation, Walt Disney is now the mark of under-achievement, the badge of mediocrity. They have not come up with anything remarkable without Pixar’s golden candy-coated hand in more than a decade, to the point that their new film’s biggest marketing gimmick is that it’s-get this!!!-a hand-drawn feature! Wow! What a novel idea! On the same note, I hear they used to put Coke in glass bottles, too! What will they think of next?! Either way, the days of Disney mediocrity started long before the new millennium, reaching as far back as the early 90s. For instance, when they decided to take on the classic romantic fantasy tale Beauty and the Beast. Disney’s bland adaptation blanketed a generation of fresh minds, leading them to believe that theirs was the only film version of the tale or, worse yet, a Disney original. Little did most know that almost 50 years prior to Disney’s garish musical, legendary director Jean Cocteau, who is actually making his first appearance on the site, made what I consider to be the definitive version of this timeless fairy tale. It’s timeless, elegant, and proudly beautiful in that particular French way, and it’s hard not to fall completely in love with it.
It’s a story I think we’re all familiar with. A father makes a mistake by picking a rose from an enchanted garden, angering a terrifying beast-like man who happens to be the lord of a magical castle in the forest. The only way to curb his ire is to send back one of his daughters, so the father goes home to deliberate this terrible decision with his daughters. One of his daughters, the lovely Belle, makes the decision for him and storms off to the palace to take his father’s place. The beast sees Belle and quickly falls for her, but cannot yet bring anyone close to him and his wounded heart. He keeps her at a distance, making a bargain with her; she will stay with him as his bride and in exchange her father is as good as forgiven. She is given nearly free reign of his magical, mysterious castle, and begins to adjust to her new life as the bride of the mercurial beast. She begins to slowly uncover the tragic history of the beast and his strange castle. She might even begin to grow a fondness for him. Is there more to the beast’s heart than rage and spite? Can the beautiful Belle love somebody like the beast? And will her family, paired with the young man who tried to win Belle’s attentions before the beast took her as a bride, be able to take her away from that castle?
Jean Cocteau has somehow escaped a nod on this site, and while perhaps his estate, fearful of me disgracing his name with my mere mention, is grateful for this fact, I still need to address him. One of the forerunners of the French New Wave, Cocteau really revolutionized the way the motion picture was made. It’s one of the first examples the world was starting to see of intensely personal visions and the rise of the auteur. From the personalized title sequence all the way to the final gorgeous frame, this is completely his vision, and what a grand vision it is. Cocteau had ideas about magic and elegance that translated unbelievably well to film. My favorite parts are in the unknowable secrets of the beast’s castle. The candelabras held by hands coming out of the walls, the mysteries of the rose garden, the brilliant white horse Magnificent, and the fantastical objects in Belle’s room are marvels of cinema, and they easily swayed my youthful heart with their whimsy.
The two leads are incredible. Josette Day as Belle is a knock-out! She’s a strong fairy-tale character with opinions and ideas. She’s an altruist, a selfless daughter, and a real sweet gal. Day plays her with a sense of wonderment and delightful curiosity that complemented her innate bravery well. This was still a time when most of an actor’s work was done in the face, so keep an eye out for the subtleties in Josette Day’s facial features, especially during the touching finale. And Jean Marais! What a treasure! This guy was unfathomably talented, and in his performance you got the full width and breadth of the beast’s pain and tortured soul. He is both the villain and the hero, a figure worthy of Shakespeare, and his love for Belle is conflicted with his pain and his lack of trust in humanity. This all comes through Marais’s thick facial prosthetic, which made him look like a mix between a lion, a bear, and a Furby.
You really ought to see this. This is an amazing adaptation of the story, and a charming romance from the 40s that still speaks to us even today. The score is tantalizingly sparse, the visuals are out of this world, and you might never come across a more appropriate on-screen pairing than Marais and Day, two pros with the theatrical gravitas to make this a surefire success. Jean Cocteau was a man before his time, so perhaps it’s best to take this displaced film and view it in the context of the future. Yes, it’s subtitled, yes it’s black and white, and no, I don’t care if that bothers you. This is something that you should enjoy for what it is; it’s not a musical with quaint musical numbers, bright colors, and 2-dimensional characters in more way than one. It’s a fantastic romance with depth and beautiful mise en scene that you should experience yourself first-hand. I give Beauty and the Beast 9 1/2 hand-held candelabras out of 10! A high recommendation!
Tomorrow I’ll be watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind! Until then!