I had the fortune, all be it for some rather unfortunate circumstances, of finally getting a new slightly bigger television. Along with this acquisition came the realization that I had moved from living in a 720p world, to one in the 1080p world and boy is the difference spectacular. While I decided to break-in the new cinematic machine with a revisiting of "The Trolley Song" from Meet Me In St. Louis a recent bluray upgrade, this was quickly followed up with popping in the long overdue viewing of Jean Cocteau's French surreal masterpiece Beauty and the Beast, which is often present on various top ten films of all-time lists. I have often held the Disney film in high esteem, mostly for nostalgic reasons, but also because it does have some moments of legitimate cinematic mastery, however, to be rather blunt about it the animated film does not have shit on this black and white, oneiric film. Incorporating a variety of simple yet powerful filmic tricks, a stellar cast and what may well be the single greatest make-up job in the history of special effects. Beauty and the Beast jumps out of the screen, regardless of what aspect ratio or pixelation you may be viewing it in. While I certainly suggest watching this in the biggest and brightest format possible it is such a magical film that it would not lose its charm even on a small screen in a low-fidelity setting. Cocteau who is also known for his maddeningly experimental Orphic Trilogy, understands the perfect balance between a traditional and accessible narrative and the true artistic expression available by working within the unconscious framework and this easily comes across within Beauty and the Beast, so much so that, as one random review on Netflix suggests, it manages to capture the interests of both grown adults and very young children, more so than the previously mentioned Disney movie. If the pure visual nature of the film were not enough to demand it moving up in relevance in discussions of film, it also manages to make a far less problematic commentary on burgeoning love and what role patriarchy plays in Belle's oppression than the latter Disney film. I go on this tirade not to discredit the animated version, but because I truly am riding the waves of adoration well over twenty four hours after an initial viewing.
This version of Beauty and the Beast begins with the provincial setting, but Belle (Josette Day) is not a single daughter, but actually the daughter forced into servitude to her father, partially out of genuine love, but also because of an outright refusal by her two sisters to do anything that would undermine their feminine ideals or vain attempts at perfected beauty. Their father, a man who deals in problematic money transactions is informed that a certain amount of his recent acquisitions have been taken as a means to pay off his debts, ultimately, forcing him to travel through the dangerous woods of the forest outside his town at night. During this trip he decides to pluck a rose to return to Belle who requested it as a gesture of simplicity. Not realizing that the roses belong to The Beast (Jean Marais), Belle's fater is informed that he is to stay imprisoned to the Beast, unless, he is willing to sacrifice his daughter to him in his place. When Belle's father returns to tell the tale, Belle throws herself into the sacrificial ring, primarily because she believes herself guilty for her father's troubles, but yet again, also a result of her sisters and their lack of concern for anything outside their comfort zones. Despite the contesting of her love interest Avenant (Jean Marais), Belle goes to the forest and lives with the Beast who continually makes gestures of kindness and romance towards Belle, for whom he becomes instantly infatuated, even proposing to her nightly, despite her continued refusal. Belle, despite her lack of desire for marriage, learns to love the Beast as a friend and seems content to live in his world, until she learns of her father's sickness and begs to return home to check on him, a wish the Beast grants on the grounds that she return in a week. Belle agrees happily, but is tricked by her family into saying, much to the mental strain of the Beast. Avenant and Belle's brother manage to return to the Beast's house and attempt to break in and steal his riches. Belle learns of the plans and finds her way back just as Avenant climbs into a forbidden room housing the goddess Diana who shoots Avenant with an arrow, ultimately, transferring the curse of the Beast upon him and allowing for Belle to fall for the Beast who is now human and just so happens to be a prince as well.
I made visual notes of the difference between this absolutely cinematic surrealist masterpiece and its grandiose and also cinematic animated counterpart. It was not until a recent discussion about the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast that I realized that the film, at the very least, passively supports women existing in verbally violent relationships, simply because they know the male figure's temper is a result of other forces, when, in fact, these assumptions, in no way make his demeaning and spiteful actions any less terrible. In Cocteau's world, the Beast is just the opposite and is actually quite caring, loving and egalitarian, essentially allowing Belle to move freely through his housing, and remember her entrapment is not the result of his doing ultimately, but instead; her father who allowed her to go in his place. This also ties back to the notion that were it not for Belle's father and his obvious monetary issues, for which he places the onus on Belle because the family simply treats her as a doormat to be walked upon. Hell, even the charming Avenant clearly possesses ulterior motives for his romantic gestures towards Belle, most of which seem to have a devious sexual desire about them. The Beast's difference becomes not a thing of physicality, but morality, he seems to navigate world void of capitalist desires or the false notion that one will find understanding and unprecedented happiness through continual gains monetarily. An otherness narrative also emerges within this narrative text, because, unlike the Disney version, viewers are led to assume that this transformation is irreversible and it is not until the closing moments of the film that we realize that love and distance from the greed of the rest of the world can help the Beast return to normal from his disaffirmed self. Even his own disfigurement is suggested to be a result of the terrible actions of his others, in this case their wrongdoings with a witch who curses the Prince, since his parents refuse to believe in its possibility. When Angela Lansbury sang "A Tale as Old as Time" it is quite possible that this cinematic treasure sat in the back of her mind.
Key Scene: The moment when Belle first walks into the Beast's castle in slow-motion with the candelabra held by human arms is certifiably one of the highlights of surrealist filmmaking on the whole.
Buy this bluray, it is a staple of the Criterion Collection and was clearly made with much time and dedication.