Once upon a Time There Was Beauty and the Beast

By Turner, George | American Cinematographer, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Once upon a Time There Was Beauty and the Beast


Turner, George, American Cinematographer


Director Jean Cocteau and cinematographer Henri Alekan fashion an enduring celluloid fable based upon the classic French fairy tale.

Director Jean Cocteau prefaced his finest movie, La Belle et le Bête (Beauty and the Beast), with these words:

Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can bring drama to a family. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he kills a victim, and that this beast will be shamed when confronted by a young girl. They believe in 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 magic words, childhood's Open Sesame: "Once upon a time..."

Obviously, this message is not addressed to children, but to adults who are asked to view the movie with the ingenuous eyes of a child. This is an important distinction: unlike Disney's 1991 animated feature, which sets out to entertain the entire family, Cocteau's 1946 version of Beauty mid the Beast is what the trade magazines call an "art house" film. The ideas imposed upon the simple story are too complex, some of the sequences are too scary, the modernistic score is too strange, and the general approach is too determinately surreal to appeal to most youngsters. On the other hand, the film is a feast for anyone who can enjoy images and sounds as art. Cocteau referred to the picture as "a substitute for a poem," adding that it "is addressed to aficionados."

The movie hews closely to the tale's original text, which was written in 1757 by Madame Le Prince de Beaumont, but the screen version is heavily embellished with Cocteau's own ideas. A merchant, impoverished by the loss of his ships, has three beautiful daughters: Adelaide and Felice are vain and ill-tempered, while Beauty is kind-hearted. While returning on horseback from a business trip, the merchant gets lost in a forest during a storm. He finds a decaying castle where he is fed and sheltered by a seemingly invisible host. In the morning, he plucks a rose for Beauty.

Soon, a hideous Beast dressed as a nobleman appears and tells him he must the for stealing the rose. The man is allowed to visit his children, but must either return to pay for his crime or send one of his daughters. Beauty takes her father's place and goes to the Beast's castle, where she agrees to stay. Hopelessly in love, the Beast is kind to her and eventually wins her friendship. When she asks to visit her family, the Beast agrees on condition that she will return in a week. He gives her a magic glove which will take her wherever she commands.

During her absence, the Beast begins slowly dying of grief. When his magic horse, Magnifique, sets off to retrieve Beauty, Avenant, Beauty's no-good suitor, and Ludovic, her indigent brother, mount the horse and go to the castle. Beauty follows; when she finds the dying Beast, she declares her love for him. Meanwhile, Avenant and Ludovic try to steal the Beast's treasure from Diana's Pavilion in the castle garden. The statue of Diana kills Avenant with an arrow, and he is changed into the likeness of the Beast. The Beast himself simultaneously becomes a prince with Avenant's handsome features, and carries Beauty far away to their legendary home.

Cocteau (1889-1963) was a conspicuously eccentric figure in the artistic circles of post-World War I Paris. A highly successful novelist, poet, playwright and painter, the thin, sharp-featured genius exerted a strong influence over a group of intellectuals, artists, authors and composers. Among the latter were Maurice Ravel, Francois Poulenc, Igor Stravinsky and a group of non-conformist composers who called themselves The Six - Erik Satie, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Darius Milhaud, Germaine Tailleferre and Louis Duret. He collaborated with Satie and Pablo Picasso on the ballet Parade, and wrote libretti for Milhaud's Le Bouef sur le Toit, Honegger's Antigone and Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex. …

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