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A surreal delight from the fertile mind of Jean Cocteau, this amazingly cinematic fairy tale is an extension of the artist's more abstract art films, proving again that genre work is good for poetic visionaries. The magic and mystery of the original story takes on additional depth and beauty through an rich and tasteful production. This Criterion disc is actually an improved reissue of an earlier release, giving the film the benefit of the painstaking digital restoration visible in classics like Children of Paradise. The improvement is welcome, as is a small addition never before seen in America: the original French opening.
Beauty and the Beast is a visual feast, a sumptuous classic that, along with The Red Shoes, played a big role in popularizing foreign films for post-war American audiences. French poet and artist Jean Cocteau treats the fairy tale with intelligence and respect, and with simple special effects creates a world of magic and miracles that's never been matched.
Josette Day presents Beauty as a worldly and wise character with deep feelings and a strong commitment to virtue. She's independent and vulnerable at the same time. Jean Marais plays three roles, Beauty's rakish lout of a suitor, the Beast, and the transformed prince at the ending. We soon grow accustomed to the formidable cat-like Beast, and the sight of him changed into a smiling, dandyish Prince Charming is the film's only letdown. An oft-repeated quote claims that Greta Garbo, enchanted by the movie, shouted out loud at a screening, "Give me back my Beast!"
Saying that the film succeeds simply because the original tale is taken seriously doesn't do the show justice. Beauty and the Beast is the best fairy tale on film because it's approached from an artist's perspective. Cocteau and his talented young cameraman Alekan consciously designed the picture to resemble illustrations by Gustav Dore and 17th century Dutch paintings; the soft lighting has little in common with the dominant Hollywood look of the day. Most of the action takes place in convincing locations and sets, where the characters behave like reasonable humans, while reacting to incredible magic. Better still, the picture's aesthetic agenda doesn't result in a prissy atmosphere of preciousness. The world of The Beast is poetic, but also dynamic and dangerous.
When the fantastic sets in, it's signalled by cinematic stylization instead of technical tricks - the effects are all simple and organic. We're pulled into the image instead of motivated to work on the practical puzzle of how they were done. Slow motion, reverse filming, simple substitution tricks are the majority of the effects used. Surreal Cocteau-like imagery does the rest, blending the animate and the inanimate. Disembodied arms hold torches, open curtains and pour liquids. In the woodcarvings around fireplaces are living cameos that follow humans with their eyes. Trees part magically to admit visitors to the garden. In this film, when doors and gates open by themselves, the simple magic works. 1 Some tricks, like the simple substitution of a pearl necklace for a mangy rope, work with the same basic misdirection a magician uses.
The Beast is a full-fledged movie monster that transforms Jean Marais into a furry, fanged nobleman with feral eyes and a savage disposition. It's a triumph of design that's integrated into the character instead of simply being a good mask, and puts much of the output of classic Hollywood horror to shame. 2 Curiously, The Beast at one point talks about the source of his power as if he is but a powerless cog in some larger system of magic - not unlike the magician Karswell and his Faustian pact in Curse of the Demon.
Cocteau interprets the conflicts of the original fairy tale with a clarity that makes them seem more like the problems of real people, even as everything that happens stays patently unreal. When first read, the original story of Beauty and the Beast can seem parable-thin: love conquers ugliness, virtue is its own reward, etc. Cocteau makes the situations accessible and understandable. The financial plight of Beauty's family makes total sense in any setting. The petty jealousy, greed and malice of her relatives is surely something most of us have experienced.
Good and Evil spring from human roots, not a fear-driven conception of the universe. The Beast does cruel things because he's lost his humanity and is half animal. Hate and fear warp perceptions, inspiring a desire to shock & harm others for not acknowledging one's pain, or reciprocating one's feelings. The Beast mistrusts virtue, and seeks to unmask Beauty's convictions as false, to find the ugliness in her. His initial act is to punish the merchant just for taking a rose, a penalty so disproportionate to the crime that it immediately indicates the Beast as the real criminal. 3 The Beast lashes out because he is lonely and lovesick; aggression always masks other problems.
As proven by shows like Into the Woods, Fairy Tales can be elaborate philosophies about human relations, and Beauty and the Beast is obviously about marriage. Beauty has a beau, but courageously and dutifully lays down her life to save her family. She's neither martyr nor idiot, and knows full well that her siblings are unworthy of her sacrifice, but her devotion to her father is total. In arranged marriages, hapless daughters prove their devotion by following their fathers' orders and marrying without love; the independent Beauty defies her father. She bravely takes the journey into the unknown against his wishes.
Her perilous stay with the Beast is not unlike a marriage that's gotten off to a bad start. She's repulsed by him, and he's frustrated and stymied by his inability to dominate her. The Beast has horrid manners and habits, and Beauty is at first distant and closed-off. But theirs is an honest relationship. He confesses his angst, and she does not try to hide her fear and disgust. Whenever people are truly open and honest, great things are possible - even monsters can be loved.
When The Beast risks all by allowing Beauty to leave on just her parole, Beauty and the Beast becomes as complex as any story about human relationships. He gives his prisoner the opportunity to be free and to destroy him, should she choose. Should the Beast die, a fabulous treasure will also be hers, riches that could solve all her family's worldly problems. Beauty's would have a good argument to do away with the monster, who, after all, did her family great harm ... it makes complete sense for Beauty to become Jack the Giant Killer. How often do mortals get the opportunity to defeat magical monsters?
But Beauty has character, and The Beast's trust and willingness to take risks inspire greater notions of loyalty and commitment. The Beast may be a monster, but he has a nobility that goes beyond the entitlements of a class system. Only when the commitment is such that partners are willing to lay down their lives for one another, does a marriage become a marriage. That's the beauty of a marriage, this selfless / selfish dream.
Beauty and the Beast opened with a normal set of titles when imported to the US, and that is how it has been seen here ever since. This edition restores an amusing detail: Jean Cocteau himself scribbles the first few titles on a blackboard, while we see the backs of Marais and Day as they erase their own names. Nothing earth-shattering, but a pleasant touch returned to its original state.
Criterion entered DVD production early, and even though their releases maintain a high standard, there are individual discs that could bear improvement. Some licensed Japanese titles in particular, have disappointing source materials, probably dictated by Toho. The original Beauty and the Beast disc (it's #6, roughly 175 releases back) was a direct transplant of their marvelous laser edition, and was probably released without digital scrubbing for reasons any company would understand - Criterion needed to get product out there to generate some income, without spending a fortune every time out the gate.
Beauty and the Beast is much improved over the scratchy, dirty version from before. It isn't only a digital fix, as the title was restored as much as possible on film in the late 90s. But Criterion's extra digital cleanup goes even further.
The damage that still remains is minimal. Periodic missing frames (it looks like someone used the source element to harvest stills) are fixed by morphing adjoining frames, but here and there there are breaks where it looks like 2 or 3 frames have been removed. These are neither frequent nor overly distracting. The show is visually even and smooth, and its soundtrack (the great Auric score) has had extensive cleanup as well.
The extras are so extensive (full list below), that I'm only going to comment on the ones I was able to fully view. Phillip Glass's opera, which synchronizes his music while voices sing the dialogue, is different but has a droning quality consistent with other Glass scores. I like the music, but it seems to flatten out the moods of the film. Screening at the Majestic is a very good retro docu where cameraman Alekan and stars Marais and Mila Parély revisit the locations for the picture, a country chateau and a bizarre statuary garden that were brilliantly used. More detail about the cinematography comes from a French TV interview with Alekan; and another television short subject has the makeup man describe how he turned Marais into The Beast. The film restoration demonstration is even more detailed than on earlier discs. There are also numerous text bios & articles, including notes from Cocteau himself.
All in all, an enchanting movie in a definitive (= thorough, useful, exacting) presentation.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Beauty and the Beast rates:
1. Admitting some kind of relationship between poetry and movie special
effects, Cocteau's much earlier Blood of a Poet is first and foremost a trick film, one that
cleverly recognizes that a still pool of water might be a mirror, and that even if audiences realize
a trick is being used, they'll still respond to grotesque distortions of familiar objects. In his
later Orpheus films, Cocteau set his earlier magic in a new kind of fairy tale occurring in
recognizable reality, with settings that illustrate contemporary preoccupations. The charred limbo
that is 'La Zone' is easily seen as representing not just the Underworld, but the ruins of Europe,
or perhaps a world poisoned by a nuclear war. Cocteau's fantasies immediately conjure the basic
pulp / poetry underpinnings of many Science Fiction and Horror films. It's a sensitivity that makes
otherwise opaque movies like
Alphaville and Eyes Without a Face pop
with complete clarity.
2. Proving that technical proficiency in a monster un-rooted in
character and theme, is never good enough. Jack Pierce's The Wolf Man is a masterful creation
- in stills. In the movie, the monster isn't much like a wolf, and has little connection with
Larry Talbot. Jack Kevan's The Creature from the Black Lagoon is an incredibly well-designed
creation, instantly accepted by audiences, that was never given a suitable story to inhabit. The Gill
Man just ambles from one meaningless scene to another, threatening the human cast. The various themes
tacked into the speeches of three sequels don't add up to much - they're there, but they just
don't have any depth. The Creature's penchant for kidnapping the heroine has little bite
beyond rote formula: what does a fish want with Julie Adams? - she doesn't even know how to spawn.
3. I think of this a lot when I read of people sentenced to ten years for
possession of tiny amounts of drugs, or mentally disturbed people being executed in the Texas death
penalty treadmill. Draconian justice immediately points to the law as corrupt, not the criminal. Our
society needs to spend time with some good fairy tales.