Beauty and the Beast - Criterion #6

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Beauty and the Beast (1946) dir. Jean Cocteau | DP. Henri Alekan

My 4-year-old son (Jack) has already seen the 1991 Disney animated version of Beauty and the Beast several times. So when I told him we were going to watch Beaty and the Beast he jumped for joy. "The beast is scary, right dad? The beast is mean!" He considers the animated beast to be quite scary and runs out of the room every time he's introduced or is acting mean. But then I told him we were going to watch a different Beauty and the Beast. He had to process this new information for a moment or two. "Will this beast be scary?" he said. "I don't think so, but we'll see." I said. And so began an hour and a half of an unending string of questions.

Any concerns I had about this 1946 version being boring for Jack were alleviated the moment the film faded in. The prospect of a beast showing up any second was enough to keep him on the edge of his seat. When we finally met the beast for the first time, he ran out of the room in a similar fashion. "He's going to be mean!" Slowly, Jack walked back in the room. "The beast looks like a lion! Why does the beast look like a lion?"

Halfway through the film, my 1-year-old son (Walter) joined us. He watched the rest of the film with rapt attention and exclaimed, "The beast!" every time the beast appeared on screen. As you can imagine, this experience of watching Beauty and the Beast with my boys ranks pretty high up there. With the unending questions and eager exclamations, I got a glimpse of the childlike wonder Cocteau describes below. The film opens with the following statement from the director. This plea sets the stage for the experience to follow and when the beast finally shows up, you might just taste a magical moment as you're staring at the sparkles in his eyes.  —ML

Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause the beast shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things. I ask of you a little of this childlike simplicity, and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magical words, childhood’s Open Sesame: ‘Once upon a time...’
— Jean Cocteau

“Everything one does in life, even love, occurs in an express train racing toward death. To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving. It is to concern oneself with something other than life or death.”

Many, many people love this film. The quote above from Opium, Cocteau’s 1929 book, fits with the vibe of the movie for me. I’ve never actually smoked opium, but Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast must hint at the experience. 

On the one hand, it feels like a high school production of a sluggish fever dream. The actors lumber awkwardly around the sets. The dialogue is often stilted. My wife and I started giggling every time the Beast said “Belle” in his deep, creepy baritone. I could not help but picture the rest of the men behind the construction paper “walls” with their arms stuck through the holes to become sconces for the torches.

But Belle’s dreamlike state comes through. The nonsense storyline overflows with all her buried anxieties and desires. You can almost hear her describing it the next morning, sounding like Dorothy: “And you were there, but you were a beast and then a prince and you died but here you are again! And father was captured and then he was sick, and I had to save him somehow.” 

Undeniable artistry is at work here with subtext and subversion made all the more powerful by the existence of the future, huggable Disney movies. The greatest subversion of all comes in the final moment when the Beast is restored and Belle, along with us, is noticeably disappointed. It’s a bit of a revelation. She fell for the beast, after all. Why would she want a prince? 

Here’s how Cocteau put it: “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 is summed up in that last sentence of all fairy tales: ‘And they had many children.' ”

And so, though the director wishes for us to embrace the child within for the purpose of receiving his story, he does not wish upon us a future of domestic servitude to actual children themselves. In other words, beware of your “happily ever after.” You just might get it.  —CL

Postscript: After watching this film, my wife and I decided to check out the 2017 live-action (CGI-enhanced) remake of Disney’s fully animated version. For my money, the new musical was much less fun than the 1991 film and felt a bit beside the point. They did, however, give a nod to Cocteau’s classic at the very end. Though Belle, played by Emma Watson, is not (of course!) disappointed by the Beast’s transformation into the handsome prince, she does look at him later ask later, “How would you feel about growing a beard?” He responds with a little Beast-like growl, and they laugh. No humdrum ever after for this Disney princess. Her Prince Charming will come with just enough of the Beast left over to keep things interesting. It is the happiest place on earth, after all.