Of all the words that appropriately describe la Belle et la Bête none more succinctly encapsulates its jaw-dropping perfection than beautiful. Of course it’s an etherial, atmospheric and magical fantasy picture whose title Director Jean Cocteau obviously took to heart. After all, what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet? Absolutely, just don’t steal that rose from the Beast.
The main attraction in la Belle et la Bête are its stunning visuals. The film’s supernaturally gorgeous sets include Belle’s family manor, the Beast’s magical castle and the dense forest in-between. The centerpiece set is Château de Raray the real life location of the film’s magic castle. Its stone structures like the unique game wall bring to life the story’s dreamy fantasy. In the film, the castle is adorned with living statues, doors that open on their own and an assortment of other household decor resembling and moving like human arms. The castle’s interior design is hauntingly beautiful and borders on body horror. There’s something ironically realistic about setting a fairy tale film in a real life castle. It’s as if Cocteau ferry’s us across the invisible boundary between reality and imagination that transforms a 17th century estate into the otherworldly castle of a Beast. I don’t know how much Cocteau considered suspension of disbelief while scouting locations and approving set designs, but it was sure on his mind by the time it came to edit.
The film begins with an anachronistic opening titles featuring Cocteau and others writing the cast and crews names on a blackboard, as if alluding to the childlike nature of the subject matter. Then as if to remind us that we’re watching a movie, a clapperboard cracks like a starting pistol followed by a wall of text crawling across the screen. It’s a plea from Cocteau to the audience. He begs us let go of our preconceptions of realism and suspend our disbelief for the duration. If we scoff and the silly Beast’s smoking skin we close ourselves off to the thrill of imagination projecting from the magic lantern. We must nestle in the perch of affirmative belief in order to enjoy la Belle et la Bête as intended. This is a personal aside but I found it very easy to immerse myself in the story as soon as the Beast himself was on screen.
Using crude but astounding practical effects and shot entirely in black and white la Belle et la Bête feels like it was made seven years before The Wizard of Oz not after, as is the case. Both films are based on beloved fairy tales about a girl leaving her real-world home and troubles for an adventure in a wondrous realm of fantasy. But the strongest similarity is how much the Beast resembles the Cowardly Lion. Jean Marais’ performance as the Beast is perfection. He’s tragic and noble, scary and vulnerable, man and monster. He exists in emotional extremes that make him more fervently human than his feline countenance suggests. “He looks just like a real-life cat-man.” I thought to myself, knowing full well there is no such thing. If you watch la Belle et la Bête for nothing more than the gorgeous makeup you’ll have made good on your investment.
The wardrobe and costumes in la Belle et la Bête are some of the most extravagant and gaudy I’ve seen in recent memory. The Beast is almost too fabulously dressed, in all black with two huge… shoulder capes covered in stars? Is that a thing? He looks like Aslan went for a Sorcerer’s Apprentice meets Goblin King fashion fusion. It’s phenomenal. Belle’s wardrobe is nearly as elaborate with her massive gowns or flowing dresses. They’re both covered in the most enormously brilliant costume jewelry. During his commentary included in the Criterion Collection’s la Belle et la Bête blu-ray release, Sir Christopher Frayling explains the film was shot in black and white because color film was too expensive in 1946’s newly liberated France. The vibrant colors of these brilliant costumes and jewelry are lost to us forever, in what seems to be World War II’s never-ending fallout.
I could easily gush about la Belle et la Bête until my thoughts crumble under the constraints of coherence so I’ll end with this thought: People travel the world over to see world class art in museums with half as much beauty and even less passion than la Belle et la Bête, and you could see it from your couch. What are you waiting for?!