Friday, August 12, 2011

La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) (1946)
FRANCE --- fantasy

Dir: Jean Cocteau

Tale as old as time and such, the fact is this story never gets old.  Many have seen the Academy Award nominated Disney take on the tale and possibly even the award-winning American television series, but a priveleged few have seen the story unfold in its original language and properly adapted for screen. Based on the original fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve written back in 1740 and then again by Madame LePrince de Beaumont, the tale of a monstrous creature with a kind, loving soul and the beautiful young damsel who learns to tame and love the beast, has larger than life implications that were just meant to be enacted either on stage or on film. Jean Cocteau was a regular renaissance man, besides being an auteur film director. In the midst of World War Two, he set out to make this fairy tale film that eventually became a truly evocative and haunting classic in its own right. This 1946 film version of "La Belle et la Bête" takes some liberties with the tale, but makes those liberties worthwhile.

As the tale is told a rich merchant lives in a manor with his son Ludovic and three beautiful daughters, however only the youngest is appropriately named so; "Belle" (translated in French as Beauty). After losing most of his fortune at sea, he is forced to downgrade to a smaller farm house, but as they toil, the daughters still act entitled. All but the humble Belle. She is courted by a handsome young man named Avenant, a friend of her brother. Avenant is not exactly a Prince Charming, and Belle's brother is a drunkard who is running up a tab with a local moneylender; a tab on his father's belongings. One day, the merchant gets word of one of ships being found and his merchandise possibly restored. Before he rushes out in high hopes of finding his riches again, he asks his daughters what they would wish as a gift upon his return. One of them suggests a monkey and the other a parrot (interesting both being beasts/animals that mimic human behavior), but Belle only requests a rose.

Unfortunately, he is dismayed to learn his ships were not recovered and all his fortunes are gone. Penniless, he must venture back home that night during foggy weather conditions, that is until he happens upon a mysterious castle hidden in the woods. Sheltering his horse, and seeking out the owner, he is met with no one, but looks upon the empty castle with wonder as it surely appears enchanted with candlestick holders shaped like human hands and statues with eyes wide open and smoke emanating from their nostrils and mouths. Eventually he arrives at the dinner table with a plate of food prepared for a guest, and once again more human hand servants. He indulges himself with some wine and passes out. The merchant awakens and is still determined to find the owner of estate, until he comes across a rosebush, remembering his promise to his daughter Belle. Just then, he finds himself confronted by the owner, a grotesque creature dressed in fine attire. The beast is set to kill him for trespassing, but tells the merchant if he offers one of his daughters for his own life to come and live with him, he will spare his life. The merchant agrees and flees back home.

He tells his family what happened, and that the beast will send an enchanted horse to pick up the promised daughter. Belle rightfully takes the responsibilty because she was the one who wanted the rose. The enchanted horse does indeed come for the merchant's daughter, and Belle rides off. Belle arrives at the enchanted castle and comes upon her personal chambers. Within she finds a mirror, where she views her own father sick unto death. In despair, she decides to search around the castle, and runs into the beast where she passes out. From this point on the beast attempts to forge a relationship with her going so far as to ask her hand in marriage, which she politely declines due to her unwillingness to let go of her attraction to Avenant. The relationship is not without its complications, as Belle becomes slowly affectionate of the beast beyond his harsh appearance. Ultimately, as time goes on for the two, she longs to return home to see after her father, but her family has other plans as they desperately conspire to kill the beast and steal the fortunes for themselves. However, in this tale, true love will win out.

I have grew up thinking "La Belle et la Bête" was another Charles Perrault or Grimm Brothers fairy tale, because it bore some resemblance to many other famous fairy tales, however it may have been inspired by those but is a fresh work on its own. Though Jean Cocteau borrowed the evil sisters directly from Cinderella, as the original tale had two brothers. Jean Cocteau's visionary masterpiece took unique practical effects to create a world where one can truly believe in magic and the triumph of love. Cocteau succeeds in correctly contrasting the sunny yet drudgery-soaked real world full of bickering, back-stabbing sisters a father at the end of his rope, and a vain suitor who seems to mean well, but can't really offer Belle the true escape she deserves. It's a story that has gone on to inspire countless other classic tales such as "Hunchback of Notre Dame", "Phantom of the Opera", and of course "King Kong".