Pour Lynnette, mon amie.
Reflections on Jean Cocteau’s “La Belle et la Bête” (1946)
Though hardly of the same genre as those films I would normally be attracted to, I am most grateful to have had this most poetically artistic piece drawn to my attention. Fantasy films do not generally appeal to me, far less fairytales, but Cocteau’s vision of the tale of Beauty and the Beast is an engrossing mix of romance, social criticism and philosophy which makes its points within the framework of a fairytale yet contains a toughness which reminds the audience of its application to reality.
The first striking feature is in the titles themselves. Cocteau himself appears as a sort of teacher writing the title and credits on a blackboard. This, then, will be a lesson – perhaps a morality tale from which we, the audience, are to take some allegorical meaning.
In the course of the exposition it is clear we are dealing with elements of several fairytales, notably Cinderella and Red Riding Hood, and also some elements of Shakespeare – The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest. The characters are all psychologically fairly complex and we are rapidly given insight into their personalities, their flaws, their strengths and their motivations – all told with a mix of light humour and dark implication (as befits a fairytale).
We are presented with Belle’s two “ugly sisters” who are deceptive, wily, insincere, grasping and self-centred, together with a somewhat feckless brother who is quite lacking in moral fibre and backbone. Combine these characters with Avenant, the brother’s handsome but short-tempered, arrogant and violent wastrel friend, and Belle’s father who is kind but overly tolerant, a victim of circumstance, and the scene is set for a drama in which Belle (Josette Day) will become the heroine through her act of self-sacrifice to save her father. This act surely highlights Belle’s sincerity and moral fibre, as well as the devotion expected of a daughter toward her father, characteristics that will be appreciated by the Beast just as much as her natural physical beauty.
The Beast (Jean Marais) can, indeed, behave in a “beastly” way – he kills and is quite threatening at times, yet he is also self aware and is striving to “better himself” through kindness and compassion to Belle (though he has compelled her to remain in his company under the constant threat to her father). This duality is essential to understanding what is appealing in the Beast, and what is repugnant in Belle’s family and friends – the Beast has reflected upon himself and his nature and wishes to rise above it, but the others simply accept who and what they are without pause for thought or a desire to improve themselves rather than their situation.
Belle is good and kind by nature, and the Beast appears to recognise this in her. Would he have accorded such compassion and affection to one of Belle’s sisters? No, beauty of spirit is at least as important as physical beauty, and it is perhaps this lesson that Belle learns when she leaves the Beast for a week to tend to her father – absence makes the heart grow fonder, but the clarity of vision she has gained by spending time with the tortured but ultimately good-hearted Beast allows her to see the others in her life for what they are, and to appreciate the Beast and his efforts to achieve change all the more.
Is it in the nature of love to see people differently? Does seeing beyond the physical and appreciating the spirit and soul of another lead to love? As stated in the film, love can bring out the beast in men, or it can bring out the best.
In many ways this seems to be a tale of Christianity (in its purest form, with no reference to the Church), with the Beast aspiring to achieve forgiveness and compassion by trying to take control of his nature and passions. In the end, the Beast is transformed by love, though not just his love for Belle, but because he feels loved by another. By extension, this feeling of being loved involves respect, appreciation and compassion toward one’s fellow men.
It is also interesting to note that in this, as well as in other French films and literature, it appears to be suggested that it is in feminine nature to help control the “beast” in men. Examples include “Jean de Florette” (written by Marcel Pagnol, Josette Day’s husband at the time of production), “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Les Misérables”.
Many thanks for taking the time to read this page – I hope you found it of use.
Stuart Fernie (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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