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Beauty and the Beast - Criterion
After viewing Jean Cocteau's 1946 fairytale masterpiece, Beauty and the Beast, I've come to greatly appreciate the ongoing effort that goes into restoring classic films. And I'm thrilled that fine packages like this one from the Criterion Collection are being made. People who are into classic and foreign films will absolutely love this DVD, not only for the movie's wonderful artistic expression, but also for the care and detail that went into assembling this DVD release.
It's evident that the Disney writers must have studied this movie extensively when writing the screenplay for their 1991 animated hit film, because there are startling similarities between these two movies. However take note that these films are far from the same. In fact, the plots are substantially different, and the endings are not even remotely close to matching. This is not a bad thing, as I undeniably prefer the Disney version to Cocteau's, but that's just my personal taste. And it must be understood that these movies are two different beasts, (pun intended) and that their intentions are vastly different. Cocteau wanted his film to reflect his poetic nature, and love for the dramatic, whereas Disney wanted to appeal to young children and the mass media market. So even though these movies have a multitude of similarities, they are in essence night and day.
The film stars Jean Marais, (The Beast & Avenant) and Josette Day (Belle). The movie begins much like Cinderella, in that Belle has two greedy and wicked sisters who care only about money and prestige, and are constantly picking on and insulting their more beautiful sister, Belle. The story quickly shows that their family was once rich, but hard times have forced them into poverty, and the two sisters cannot handle the loss of their fortune. Belle is subsequently forced to do all of the housework on her own. Belle's father attempts to return home from a failed business trip one night but gets lost, and finds himself at the foot of a mysterious enchanted castle. The Beast finds him stealing a single rose from his garden, and tells him he will be killed for his actions unless one of his daughters will take his place as the Beast's prisoner. Belle's father is allowed to go home with only his word to the beast as his bond. From here the story plays much like the Disney version, except for the ongoing story about Belle's love interest back home, and her money grubbing sisters, who will do anything to be rich again.
Overall I found the film very interesting and enjoyable, however I thought the choice of dialogue at times was very poor, and noticed several holes in the plot that were never explained. But truthfully, the beauty of this film is in the presentation, not the story. Filmed in France not long after World War II, it's clear this movie took a lot of hard work and effort to create considering the time period it was made. And after watching the wonderful package of special features offered on this disc, you'll know more about this movie than you probably ever thought possible.
Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast is a different kind of movie made during a very different time. It's a classic fable told in the most honored and artistic tradition. And although this fairytale is probably unfit for the youngest of children, it can still be enjoyed by adults who are children at heart.
Video: Beauty and the Beast is presented in the original 1.33:1 full screen format. This is a black and white movie that looks outstanding after the incredible restoration project that was undertaken to revive this film. After looking at scenes of the film before the restoration, it's almost a miracle that they could make it look this good. Naturally the film still looks old, even after the magical restoration. There are lots of spots, lines, and dust visible in the picture, but this is to be expected. Overall, this movie looks great, which is no small feat considering the transformation it had to go through.
Audio: Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast is presented in Dolby Digital mono. It sounds perhaps a little better than you would expect a 57-year-old movie to sound. The French dialogue is easy to hear, but there is a "crackling-pop" sound always present. This is a French film, but for those of you who aren't fluid in the language worry not, for there are English subtitles. And for you purists out there, you can also watch the film with the subtitles off.
Although I enjoyed listening to the original soundtrack, in some ways I preferred the optional Opera audio track composed by Philip Glass, which is stunningly presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. Listening to this audio track greatly enhances the movie, and having all 6 speakers work at the same time makes for a more enveloping and magical experience. But this is a matter of personal taste, and most will surely prefer the original dialogue track.
Extras: This DVD comes with a hefty load of special features, and does well to educate any hardcore fan of the movie. The extras are extensive, so here's a very brief rundown of what you get.
Original Opera: This is an audio track specifically composed by Philip Glass for this movie. Watching the movie with this soundtrack greatly changes the mood of the film, and gives it a more whimsical vibe. I highly recommend viewing the movie with this audio track enabled at least once.
Screening at the Majestic: This is a (1995) documentary featuring interviews with the varying cast and crew.
Two commentary tracks: We get two commentary tracks, one from renowned film historian Arthur Knight, and the other from writer/cultural historian, Sir Christopher Frayling. Both commentaries are loaded with dizzying amounts of information about this classic film. People who love the movie owe it to themselves to sit through these commentaries.
Behind-the-scene and publicity stills: Title says it all.
Original trailer: This trailer was directed and narrated by Jean Cocteau.
Film restoration demonstration: This demonstration was fascinating to see and really gives the viewer an appreciation for how much the film's appearance has been restored.
Reprint of Mme. Leprince de Beaumont's original fable: This is an English translation of the original fairytale by Mme. Leprince de Beaumont.
Rounding out the rest of the extras are, an Interview with cinematographer Henri Alekan, Notes by Francis Steegmuller, and Notes from Cocteau.
This Criterion Collection release is a wonderful package, and is a must have for any true classic or foreign film lover. If you love the story of Beauty and the Beast, and want to see a different, yet highly artistic adaptation of the tale, then this is your best bet. However it should be known that this movie is not for everyone. It is a 1940's French film, so you have to know what you're getting into before watching it. That said, this film is a wonderful window into the evolution of what we know the story to be today. Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast is unique, inspiring, and wonderfully executed. Recommended