About a month ago, I stumbled across Kyle Kallgren’s review vlog “Brows Held High”. He’s part of the Channel Awesome team and takes a look at arthouse films. This review I found was a multi-part review between himself and Tony Goldmark of Some Jerk With A Camera, discussing two very different adaptations of the fairytale Beauty and the Beast. Kallgren was wistfully nostalgic of a 1946 version by Jean Cocteau, while Goldmark took the side of Disney’s animated version.
I had heard of the Cocteau adaptation before, but never paid much attention to it. But this review pointed out how much the movie influenced the Disney version. I love the Disney version very much. The animation is beautiful and the story is compelling. But now I had to see Cocteau’s take on the old story.
Jean Cocteau was part of the avant-garde artists in France. Or, rather, he was avant-garde enough to make Americans feel clever and pretentious when watching his films, but not avant-garde enough for the others in France, who I imagine turned up their noses at him while drinking Fairtrade coffee and adjusting their ironic scarves.
It probably wasn’t as surreal as some other movies from that era are. (I actually plan on watching some of the surreal German films from the 20’s and 30’s. That should be interesting.) But there is a dreamlike quality to it that I think fits well when adapting a fairy tale to film.
It begins with Cocteau asking us to view the movie through a child’s eyes, which makes sense: fairy tales run on “child logic” (as Kallgren and Goldmark pointed out in their review).
We open, not with Belle, but with her two spoiled sisters, dressed up and going out on the town despite their bad financial situation. Belle is left to clean the house. While her brother Ludovic and his friend Avenant mock the two sisters, they aren’t much better. Both are gamblers, and Avenant (who is in love with Belle) gets close to being put on a special police list.
Avenant, we need to have a discussion about "boundaries"...
Things look up when their father’s money is recovered, and the story proceeds as normal: he stops at the Beast’s castle for the night, and after disembodied arms try to serve him dinner he decides to board the Nope Train, but not before grabbing a rose. The Beast comes right out of freaking nowhere in a rage, and the father returns home with the bad news.
Belle sneaks out on the Beast’s horse, Magnificent, and thus begins her adventure. Her journey through the castle is beautiful. White curtains flutter out from the windows, concealing her from view as she moves slowly down a corridor.
The relationship between Belle and the Beast is different from the perception those of us who grew up on the Disney version got. Here, the Beast really isn’t that bad at all. (Unless you count kidnapping and threatening, that is. But, as pointed out before, child logic. It helps when watching a fairy tale.) He and Belle develop a calm friendship that clearly grows into romance, although Belle will not admit it to herself until the very end. Also, the Beast’s curse involves him acting like a Beast. He is compelled to chase and murder animals, and when he does, smoke comes off his hands. (That actually gave me weird dreams of my own.)
Meanwhile, Belle’s father grows sick with worry for her, and it’s compounded when Ludovic stupidly gambles away their fortune at Avenant’s encouragement. When Belle is allowed to return for a visit, wearing an expensive dress, her brother, sisters, and Avenant (driven partly by jealousy) contrive to keep her away while the two men head off to kill the Beast. (Without a song and dance routine.) Here, it’s simple greed. Belle proves herself to be worthy of these expensive gifts because of how willing she is to give them away. She tries to give one sister a necklace which turns into a hunk of wood when the greedy girl takes it. She gives her mirror to them, which only shows them as they are inside-a monkey (the sister asked for a monkey earlier-I laughed really hard at that) and an old woman.
I won’t give away the ending. Everyone knows how it will end generally, but there’s a twist that’s slightly baffling and takes some thinking to understand.
If you enjoyed the Disney version, then definitely give this one a try. The visuals are similar, as well as some of the plot points (Avenant is a proto-Gaston). There are some humorous moments (such as the monkey, and the drunk servants), but mainly, it’s simply a beautiful film for a beautiful story.