It has often been said that Jean Cocteau was the first major poet and writer to treat the cinema with total seriousness. But actually it was the cinema that made him into a major artist. “The movie screen,” he said, “is the true mirror refecting the flesh and blood of my dreams.” And one of his most poetic, dreamlike films was La Belle et La Bête
Watching it now, you can’t feel its audacity as you might have done at the time. Faithfully, but not totally innocently, based on the fairy tale by Madame LePrince de Beaumont, it is almost purely visual, even if a Freudian analysis is possible. And it is certainly completely different in atmosphere and style from anything that had gone before, at least in the commercial cinema.
The team who made it in 1946 – and it was a team – broke a good many rules at the urging of Cocteau. Georges Auric’s memorable music didn’t so much underline the visuals as frequently cut across them, reaching a synthesis at vital moments. Henri Alekan’s equally extraordinary cinematography, which the studio described unsympathetically as “white cheese”, is the opposite of conventionally fantastic. “I’m pushing Alekan in precisely the opposite direction from what fools think is poetic,” Cocteau wrote. Alekan’s black-and-white photography was sharp and unfuzzy, set in a credible French country landscape that contains not just the realistic home of Beauty but also the weird, enchanted domicile of the Beast. It could almost be a documentary – which allows us to believe anything Cocteau asks of us.
The result was a film that dared to be naive, asking its audience to revert to childhood, the better to accept its practical magic. It is one of Cocteau’s few films that it is wiser to take at face value, rather than explore at the level of later, perhaps more sophisticated (and certainly more pretentious) works, such as the two famous Orphée films. Only when the Beast is transformed into the handsome Jean Marais, and the flight to happiness provides a harmonious ending, do we begin to doubt anything – apart, perhaps, from the Beast’s curiously squeaky voice. But even then we are willing to suspend our disbelief. After all, isn’t everything else perfectly normal?
I’m prepared to entertain the argument that Beauty and the Beast is not Cocteau’s most “important” film and that it does have some creaky moments. But it is probably his most perfect, because it speaks to so wide an audience with its intensity of vision and the emotions that it inspires in us. Watch Beauty looking into a mirror and seeing her face replaced by that of the Beast, her almost trance-like walk through the Beast’s melancholy hallways, or her pacing backwards and forwards as she impatiently awaits his nightly visit as a statue behind her follows her with its head, and you see a precisely imagined fantasy. It’s all the better for not relying on astonishing special effects but on the private thoughts of the watcher. Would some Hollywood films today do us that honour?
The importance of Cocteau’s work on film was that it embodied a number of different traditions and disciplines, and was as behoven to classical drama as to the avant-garde. That is why it remains so fascinating today and so strong in people’s memories. Cocteau was almost 60 when he made Beauty and the Beast, his first full-length feature. But the astonishing fact is that this elderly poet had, and still has, a huge influence on the avant-garde of American film. In worshipping the new in Cocteau, some of them had little idea of the traditions from which his art sprang. But he affected them just the same.