'La Belle et la Bete': What Cocteau's Film Fable Tells Us about Society, Politics, Gender and Sexual Identity in Post-War France

By Hayward, Susan | History Today, July 1996 | Go to article overview

'La Belle et la Bete': What Cocteau's Film Fable Tells Us about Society, Politics, Gender and Sexual Identity in Post-War France


Hayward, Susan, History Today


Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete was only his second film and was completed sixteen years after his first foray into this medium with Le Sang d'un poete (1930), an anti-realist, semi-surrealist film. Although public memory might more readily associate him with film-making because of the lasting success of La Belle et la Bete (1946) and Orphee (1949/50), Cocteau never wished to lay claim to being a cineaste because he did not want to be under any obligation to make films -- even though he did see film as a way of reaching a greater audience with his `message-as-poet' of the importance of the unconscious. Indeed, Cocteau always saw himself as poet. In his lifetime, he made only six films over a period of thirty years: all were intensely personal and, to a degree, self-referential.

Nonetheless, in the early-1950s, thanks to his film-making practices in La Belle et la Bete and Orphee, he was given auteur status by the influential critics writing for the Cahiers du cinema -- the journal primarily responsible for initiating the auteur debate (auteur status was given to those film-makers who scripted, directed and edited their films or whose films had specific personal hallmarks that re-occurred from film to film). These critics decried contemporary French cinema, labelling it the cinema de papa and cinema de qualite -- both negative epithets used to denounce what they saw as an unimaginative script-led cinema produced according to safe formulas and stultifying film practices. In Cocteau (as in only a few other French film-makers, like Renoir and Bresson) they saw the hand of the auteur (Cocteau wrote the scenario, scripted, directed and edited his films) and praised him for being a `film-maker's' film-maker'.

Doubtless, because of his eclecticism as a poet working in so many media (such as theatre, poetry, novel, drawing, music, sculpture and decor) he was able to bring something new to the film screen. His influence on a new generation of film-makers known as la Nouvelle vague (the French New Wave of 1958-64), some of whom were former critics of the Cahiers du cinema, is duly acknowledged by them. Jean-Luc Godard cites Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete as a source of inspiration for his thriller Alphaville (1965) -- in particular Cocteau's use of lighting and camera angles. Alain Resnais used Orphee to explain the effects he wanted the Japanese cameraman to produce in Hiroshima mon amour (1959). Francois Truffaut so regarded Cocteau's work that he helped produce his last film Le Testament d'Orphee (1959). In that year, the hundredth volume of Cahiers du cinema was dedicated to Cocteau (entitled Le Cent d'un Poete).

La Belle et la Bete was two years in the making, with the discussions and preparations dating even further back to 1943. The making of this famous fairy tale into a film was first suggested to Cocteau by his partner, the actor Jean Marais, who, until starring in this film, had only played one major film role: that of a modern-day Tristan in Delannoy's L'Eternel retour (1942). His portrayal of the Beast effectively launched his film career, leading to a string of starring roles.

Conditions for film production were extremely difficult in post-Liberation France, not simply in terms of obtaining funding but also in terms of getting film stock -- and usable film stock at that -- as well as gaining access to studios. Cocteau was to be successful on all counts, but not without many complicated negotiations beforehand.

In order to obtain funds, Cocteau first took his project to Gaumont who rejected it. Contemporary taste for films was towards realism -- a knock-on effect of the impact of Italian Neorealism. Although a small quantity of costume dramas were being produced (Boule de suif in 1945 and, more famously, Les Enfants du Paradis in 1944), realism was the order of the day and, more particularly, if film was to have any function at all during the very uncertain days of post-Liberation it was to help redeem the nation's shattered sense of identity.

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