La Belle et la bête – Jean Cocteau re-imagines fairytales. (film review)

I’ve always wondered at the Beauty and the Beast story – even as a girl – that the rewards for seeing through ugliness to the beauty within are… well, a beautiful husband. It’s a little like the ugly duckling story. If you’re picked on by the ducks that are prettier, stronger and better than you – don’t worry because accidental success by virtue of birth is the best revenge. Beauty and the Beast is a story that teaches the incorruptibility of courage, patience, stoicism, understanding and above all else, not judging a book by its cover. The reward afforded Belle is the beautiful cover – the very thing she claims bares no reward for her. Seen through the lens of feminist theory, these stories have lost a little of their luster when you consider the great damage perpetrated upon women, and by women upon themselves, because they persist in thinking kissing a frog will result in a handsome prince of reliable honor. Or, so will wearing the most magical pair of shoes. While little boys relate through comics to billionaire loners who use their money and brains to do good in the world through a zen-like lens of never being thanked ah-la-Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne, little girls are told to lay for decades inert as though asleep and wait for the perfect man who will fight dragons for the mere reputation of her beauty, to come and kiss her.

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At least with Beauty and the Beast, the female protagonist has to do something. She’s not just a put upon victim. Beauty is a good kind girl.  She’s not even a shoe fetishist like Cinderella. She’s a little over committed to her father, and self-effacing, but she is able to adapt to her economic conditions and embrace work faithfully in the face of poverty.  Her economic relationship to her position in society is both accepted and questioned in her deep thought regarding her responses, and she chooses prudence over money at many moments when she is tempted in her own private wilderness by her own private devil. She turns to work when her brothers become drunkard gamblers and her sisters turn to conniving and marrying to repair their poverty. She cares for and defends her father despite his poor business decisions landing the family in hot water. She refuses to marry a man she does not love no matter how much money he has and no matter how that money might assist her family, and she accepts responsibility for all her actions, even if that means death for her.

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Part of the magic of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast lies in his recognition of the strangeness of the Beauty and the Beast story. For example, Cocteau adds a lover early on for Beauty.  She refuses his marriage request, even though she loves him, because to marry him would be selfish given the situation of her family. Avenant turns out to be a scoundrel, unbeknownst to Beauty. When she agrees to marry the beast, he doesn’t just turn into a handsome man, his image becomes that of Avenant, the man she loved before. This solves the issue I raised in the first paragraph of beauty being the reward for not desiring beauty. Even if you think the metaphor is “beauty within”, it remains a problem because love is blind and no woman’s love can magically make a prince of her beast (nor should it). Cocteau addresses this problem thoroughly by making Beauty’s reward personal to her, and placing it firmly back in the world of the magical.

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Another issue he addresses is the concept of the beautiful itself. The Beasts castle and world is a breathtaking collection of riches that glitter that shine in a glory of opulence. However, unlike the fairytale, they never seem real. His world is made up of costumes and sets, his actions made to look like the dramas performed in the play. Everything is stylized, and symbolic and there is never a moment one gets the sense of genuine, hard-earned wealth.  It all looks enchanted, as if it could disappear at a moments notice. Beauty is never seen relaxing and enjoying her surroundings, and we never feel that she can or ought to. The Beasts wealth is a facade that hides a lot of good and a lot of evil – a metaphor that still plays a part when comparing this to all wealth in a capitalist society. He’s done something very clever here – even tears turn to diamonds in the hands of Cocteau.

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That Cocteau saw these social issues in 1946, just a year after the end of the second world war is fascinating enough (The Second Sex wasn’t written until 1949) but that he decided at that time to make a film including these ideas, considering he was right leaning politically is even more astounding. But then, I’m not familiar with the histories of politics and being right-wing in 1946 Paris might have been a very different thing to what it is now. (Though he is a little haunted by those pro-Hitler statements) Cocteau was also openly gay, and his Beauty and the Beast has a very strong campy subtext. One of the reasons for bringing Avenant into the film is the homoerotic relationship displayed between he and Beauty’s brother who objects strongly to the couple marrying, because he thinks Avenant is good for him but not good enough for Beauty. There is a great deal to be read into the film when seen through Queer theory as well – those costumes and that Beast are as camp as camp gets, and Cocteau did cast his lover Jean Marais as the Beast and Avenant.

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However, all this social theorizing aside, one thing about Jean Cocteau is he really knew how to make a splendid film, and his Beauty and the Beast blows all of the others out of the water, even the 1991 Disney classic that uses this film as the original source. Suitable for children and adults alike, Cocteau creates an intensely rich, satisfying fantasy that is simple to follow, lightly and delicately written and visually sumptuous. It’s enormous reputation is well deserved as it remarkably straddles the time barrier that offers us immaculate CGI and thrilling special effects.  Cocteau’s magic lies in the fact that this film can still hold a place with all modern children’s films and I bet we’d be hard pressed to find a child of fairy-tale-listening age that wouldn’t sit glued to this film, even today.

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