Sunday, November 30, 2014

Beauty and the Beast (1946)

Jean Cocteau's 1946 version of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast has always left me cold.  The movie is too long by about a half-hour and it's middle section, in particular, drags.  The story is curiously disorienting and confusing.  Although the movie is about sexual transgression -- bestiality, the heroine's love for an animal, Cocteau disguises this aspect of the story or, at least, decorously diverts attention away from that theme.  Half of the film is devoted to the economic travails of Belle's pretentious, if impoverished family, material that seems incongruous with the kinky subtext of the scenes with the Beast.  Furthermore, the happy ending, of course, isn't happy at all and leaves the audience unsatisfied -- this is because the Beast with his silky fur and elegant brocaded garments, his sad bulging eyes, and gentlemanly tiny white incisors adorning his thin black lips, is phenomenally handsome and, in fact, much more desirable than the rather vapid human hero.  Indeed, at every juncture, Cocteau seems determined to make the Beast more appealing than any of the humans, including the beautiful, if dull, heroine. (The actress, Josette Day, is a great burst of white light to the Beast's preternatural and mournful blackness.)  Presumably, Cocteau understands what he is doing and, I suppose, there is Freudian or Jungian analysis that can make sense of the picture's bizarre ending -- but, emotionally, the film falls to earth with a thud when the Beast is transformed into the simulacrum of one of the venal and dim-witted humans.  Cocteau tries to avoid our let-down by suddenly investing his chaste heroine with a leering, sexual impudence -- she pouts and anxiously flings herself at her human lover while simultaneously declaring that she desires the Beast.  The final shots of the lovers ascending into heaven in a great floral bouquet of swirling garments, something like Paolo and Francesca in Dante or the figures one might glimpse on a rococo ceiling -- have a sour desperation:  Cocteau is pulling out all the stops to persuade us that the ending is satisfactory when everyone knows it is not.  (Marlene Dietrich's response to the last scenes in the film is noteworthy and exemplary:  at the screening, she attended she murmured "Bring me back my beautiful Beast!")  The movie founders on a sub-plot involving an attempt to rob the Beast's treasury guarded by an animate statue of the Virgin huntress Diana.  In that robbery, Belle's would-be human lover is shot in the back by Diana's arrow and, then, transforms into the Beast -- whether he is dead or just the victim of a malign metamorphosis or whether this shot is supposed to symbolically signify that the handsome movie star (Jean Marais) was really a beast within is uncertain.  Simultaneously, the Beast turns into a prince, but, disappointingly, his human face is that of the lover just shot down by Diana.  The effect is palpable disappointing, something clearly intended by Cocteau but peculiar nonetheless.  (As a homosexual, he may not be emotionally invested in the conventional heterosexual climax and, perhaps, signals his disdain for the embrace between the pale, pretty movie stars with which he is forced to conclude his film.  I wonder if there is not a more subversive and disturbing implication -- the film was made during the German occupation and I wonder if Cocteau is not mourning the departure of the beautiful blonde German beasts from Paris.)    The picture embodies the spirit of the rococo as refracted through Cocteau's surrealism and the various magical effects are justly celebrated:  statues come to life and the grounds around the Beast's chateau are like the enchanted gardens that we see in paintings by Watteau and Fragonard.  Watch this movie for the Beast;  he moves like a courtier or a great dancer, and, when Beauty has him lap water from her pale hands, the imagery has a delirious erotic impact.  Later as the poor beast is dying, we see a close-up of his face, the silky fur now matted and his nose wet as the muzzle of a friendly Labrador retriever.  Several large and malign geese hiss loudly at him.  This film is classic, but I don't much like it.  Every major director has alluded to Beauty and the Beast in some respect and stolen its effects and so you need to see this movie and make up your own mind about it. 

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