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Review: Beauty and the Beast (1946)

Beauty and the Beast (1946)

Directed by: Jean Cocteau

Premise: A retelling of the classic fairytale. A young woman (Josette Day) is taken prisoner by a hairy monster (Jean Marais) who lives in an abandoned castle. The beast and the young woman gradually fall in love but her family plots against them.

What Works: The Beauty and the Beast fairytale has been adapted to cinema many times but French filmmaker Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film is still one of the best regarded versions. This picture is quite different from what viewers acquainted with Disney’s adaptations might expect. Although it’s not a horror picture, this version of Beauty and the Beast has a dark and gothic visual style that is frequently beautiful but also unsettling. Movies are generally experienced like dreams and this particular film plays like an especially vivid fantasy. This movie is a very good example of creating a fantastical cinematic world without a Hollywood tent pole budget. Like many other incarnations of this story, the accessories of the Beast’s home come alive to serve the guests but it’s done in a way that is less anthropomorphized than other versions and has some creepy and surreal qualities. Beauty and the Beast is also a good case for black and white cinematography. Made in 1946, the use of black and white was less a stylistic choice than it was a reality of the filmmaking technology at the time. Nevertheless, the black and white imagery adds to the surreal quality of the movie and the high contrast images inside the castle are creepy. Among the most impressive aspects of 1946’s Beauty and the Beast is the Beast himself. This film was made long before contemporary prosthetic makeup effects and yet the Beast is as convincing as anything in today’s fantasy pictures. Unlike some other versions of Beauty and the Beast, including Disney’s live action version and the cult television show, the Beast of this film, played by Jean Marais, looks and acts like a feral creature. Cocteau and Marais’ interpretation of the Beast is frightening and monstrous but he’s also a tragic figure, much more so than some other versions. His animalistic appearance is matched by a melancholic quality and there is a sad desperation about his attempts to win Belle’s affections. That pays off in the blossoming love between Belle and the Beast which is the heart of this story. The grotesque nature of the Beast creates a greater obstacle for the lovers to overcome and so this version of Beauty and the Beast captures the essence of the story.

What Doesn’t: Viewers whose only encounter with Beauty and the Beast has been though Disney’s 1991 animated film and its 2017 live action remake may find the 1946 version to be off-putting. These are not the same characters as seen in Disney’s films and its tone is quite different. Those aren’t faults of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast but viewer’s preconceptions may color the way in which they see this film. The weakest element of this version of Beauty and the Beast is the reveal at the end; those familiar with this story can probably guess what that is. Unlike some of the other versions, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast does not establish the Beast’s backstory ahead of time and so the ending plays as a deus ex machina resolution. However, the dream-like nature of the film softens the impact. Beauty and the Beast is at its best when the action is in the castle; that’s the heart of the movie. The portions of the film taking place at Belle’s home are not as compelling, especially in the opening of the story, but the mundane domestic spaces create an effective contrast with the dramatic action in the castle and give those moments their surreal and magical qualities.

DVD extras: The Criterion Collection edition of Beauty and the Beast includes Philip Glass’ opera, featurettes, interviews, image galleries, trailers, commentary tracks, and a booklet.

Bottom Line: Jean Cocteau’s version of Beauty and the Beast is an important piece of world cinema and it is one of the most unique versions of a tale that’s been told many times. Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is essential viewing for those who enjoy fantasy cinema but it’s also worthwhile for anyone else who enjoys this story.

Episode: #640 (March 26, 2017)