Beauty and the Beast

After the opening credits to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 masterpiece Beauty and the Beast (or, La Belle et la Bête), the director breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience. “L'enfance croit ce qu'on lui raconte et ne le met pas en doute,” he begins, “children believe what we tell them”. He concludes: “I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood's “Open Sesame”: once upon a time…” The archetypal opening words to any fairy tale function as a doorway to a childlike state wherein the fantastical is accepted as truth; where beasts inhabit enormous castles pining for the love of a woman; where true love redeems. Cocteau’s film, a monument of French cinema, represents a portal into the world of childhood – dreamlike, vague around its edges, teetering on the edge of the frightening.

An (uncited) entry on the film’s Wikipedia page informs us that “The beast’s makeup and prostheses took a long time to apply, taking about three hours to attach the beast’s mask and one hour for each claw. The teeth would be hooked into the actor’s mouth, which was not very practical for eating. This caused the actor to eat mainly soup.” The prosthetics, which were based on Cocteau’s husky, Moulouk, give the beast’s face a kind of flatness and lend his eyes a particular brightness and vitality, while the canine-leonine face is imperious, expressive of the self-contained energy of an animal. The entire shoot was marked with physical discomfort, both for the actors, whose incredibly heavy costumes were said to have been “as much as the actors could stand up in”, and for Cocteau himself, who was dealing with a skin condition that meant he was forced to take penicillin every three hours. Beneath the baroque exterior lies discomfort, pain and shame; the beast sips on his soup.

Cocteau was a poet, and the touches of the surreal in this film (the human arms serving as candelabra; the way that the woman appears to glide a foot off the floor) create an artistic atmosphere of uncertainty and beauty, a densely layered mass of metaphor. This accounts for the particular texture of the film, its lustrousness, rendered all the more clearly in black and white film stock.

As the 1970s documentary series Cinematic Eye: Angel of Space and Time notes, Cocteau finished the film as the Nuremberg Trials were coming to an end, and Europe attempted to put a lid on a period of domestic horror. This dreamlike film, in which the play of surfaces threatens continually to collapse (even tears turn to diamonds as they make their way down the characters’ faces) suggests a darkness behind the ornate interiors – an unhappy childhood that produces a nexus of ugliness that grows into the beastly adult. Childhood, it seems, is not just a land of wonder but a battleground of trauma and response for which the stake is no less than the human soul. The epitaph on Cocteau’s gravestone reads Je reste avec vous, “I stay with you”. Art outlives the artist, but so too does childhood outlive the child; great art can transport the adult back, to that vertiginous and enthralling world, and encounter it anew. ◉

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