La Belle et La Bete

La Belle et La Bete

The mythology and symbolism loving director Jean Cocteau created the surreal ‘La Belle et La Bete’. He made a Beauty and the Beast with Belle, Gaston and all the characters you’ll know from the Disney version… but transformed into a timelessly dark fairytale…

“Tale as old as time,” is the infamous line Mrs Potts sung as Belle, dressed in her flowing gold gown, and Beast in his well-presented dapper suit, danced into the night to that memorable tune, the turning point for their relationship. Well, that’s how it goes in The Disney version of the French fairytale, at least. In the midst of the glowing esteem over the past 20 years Disney’s classic has received, and rightly so too, Jean Cocteau’s Gothic masterwork La Belle Et La Bete [1946] has unfortunately been left on the side-lines, waiting for Disney to score yet another touch-down with an all-singing and dancing affair before Cocteau’s effort will be awarded with an inch of the same notice as the 90s hit.

La Belle et La Bete trailer – narrated by Jean Cocteau himself

Sticking more to the source material with the inclusion of the ‘Gaston’ like character Avenant, the story is simple. Belle (Josette Day) is the sister of brother Ludovic and sisters Félicie and Adélaide, whom are the offspring of a not so wealthy merchant father. Having lost their fortune, Félicie and Adélaide still try to upkeep with their grand lifestyle; despite the fact the family have barely a coin to their name while Belle is left to slave over the house a la Cinderella. Suddenly, luck favours Belle and her siblings, – Belle’s father has apparently uncovered a wealth that will pay off the debt the family owe, and set them up for life; all he needs to do is collect the fortune.

On his way to retrieve his riches, Belle’s father gets lost in the woods, and retreats to a castle where he finds a mysterious and powerful magic beholds it. Frightened, Belle’s father tries to make a run for it, stumbling upon the castle garden where he spots a beautiful rose bush. Before leaving, he had asked his daughters what they wished for on his return, and Belle had asked for a rose. Remembering her wish, Belle’s father picks a single rose off the bush and right on cue The Beast (Jean Marais) emerges in all his terrifying glory, giving him an ultimatum – either he will die, or one of his daughters will take his place for having stolen one of his precious roses.

Feeling responsible, Belle willingly offers herself in her father’s place, and so begins the journey into worldly unknowns and mystery.

Crammed with beautiful gothic set pieces, stunning avant-garde costumes and striking make-up for The Beast, La Belle et la Bête creates a hauntingly surrealist image, wonderfully contrasting Belle’s sleepy village town with the grand bravado of Beast’s castle, as if The Beast dwelled in another world or even another planet.

Cocteau’s poetic background has clearly influenced the creepy visuals of La Belle et la Bête. Foremost, the French directors’ influential version is visual poetry on screen and actors Josette Day and Jean Marais lovingly embrace the text, embodying classic characters with enough heart that it’s painstaking to watch Belle leave Beast’s side as she rushes to see her sickly father.

The moral message of The Beauty and the Beast tale, has, unlike La Belle et la Bête, aged in this modern day – ‘The Ugly Beast, with love, transforms into a Handsome Prince and all is well for the Beautiful Girl’, but Cocteau has conjured up a sinister and romantic portrait of the fable that it is easy to cast aside the stories flaws and be swept away in the romance of it all.

Still to this day, La Belle et la Bête remains to be an untouched feat in cinema for fashioning a timeless fairytale, and more impressive, Jean Cocteau has achieved the hardest job of all – creating a film that has, and probably will, stand the test of time.

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