Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Film Review: La Belle et La Bete par Jean Cocteau (1946)

Light and shadow, a supposition of Jean Cocteau’s dream world, depth is created and la Bête falls in love with la Belle.  Light is the privileged poetic medium for the expression of the unreal says Estelle Soler in her review on Arte of the film. The original idea of the movie goes back to 1740 and a short children’s story written by Madame Barbot de Villeneuve. Yet Cocteau’s movie has nothing to do with a children’s movie and though every age could enjoy the romantic story, maturity in the mind is required to fully grasp the genius behind it. One must not just look at the story itself but at what makes the story.

« J’ai obligé ALEKAN à supprimer les trames, les gazes, les voiles, le flou que les naïfs s’imaginent être le signe distinctif de la féérie. Je le pousse vers l’inverse de ce qui semble être poétique aux imbéciles. Je cherche à communiquer un climat qui corresponde davantage aux sentiments qu’aux faits. »
Jean Cocteau 

Cocteau forced Alekan, the director of photography, to delete the fabric, the veils, the fuzziness and vagueness that pushes the innocent to believe that these are distinctive signs of the enchanted. He pushes him towards the inverse of what seems poetic to the imbeciles. His main goal, in regards to mood, is to communicate a climate that corresponds to the thoughts rather than to the facts. To generate a climate based on the enchanted would have failed to deliver the majestic theatrical presentation the viewer gets from the movie. By weaving light and sound through the emotions and thoughts of the characters, Cocteau has made his story more credible.

                        Jean Cocteau                                                            Jean Marais

The movie starts out in the very real and material house of Belle’s family. Here we see Josette Day in a role of a beautiful servant, looked down upon by her two pompous sisters. A whole book could be written on the role these two play in the movie. An amazing backdrop to the more mystical role Belle plays, they enable her elevation to a higher spiritual level. Cocteau’s use of these two characters is a masterstroke, as this permits him to really portray Belle as a beautiful, almost otherworldly character, a paragon of modesty and virtue. This is just a cover nonetheless, an effect to trick the viewer into having a predetermined opinion of the characters. Belle is ambiguous.

What is her true personality? We see her as a helpful maid, always worried about her father, who refuses Avenant’s love in a weird game of emotions, who accepts her sister’s torment without a word and who accepts right away to be sent to her death rather than see her father die. A very egoistical attitude, one seen quit often. She says that she could not live with the sorrow if he died, but what of he? Her disappearance almost causes his death, showing the strong and intimate relationship between them. The father is the catalyser of the movie, and his visit of the castle is a great example of how the filmmakers played with the light and shadow effect.

        Theatre permeates the movie, its influence obvious and intended. The set like scenes added to the time spent in each area brings a virtue to the film. The pitch-black background, and strongly lit foreground object gives an infinite depth to the scenes, a technique often used in theatre. Our perception is altered and we fail to notice how crude some details are, so enthralled by the magic of the castle we become. The handheld chandeliers that slowly get lit and expand tracing a path for the actor to follow seems completely normal, a magical realism similar to what Gabriel Garcia Marquez portrays in “A Hundred Years of Solitude.”

Damian Cannon, in his 1997 review says that "once again, Jean Cocteau has brought to life a visual masterpiece. From the intricate and convincing make-up of the Beast and the surreal splendour of the bewitched castle to the unadorned simplicity of Beauty and the brutal gaudiness of her sisters, every frame is a feast for the eyes. Light and darkness seem to caress the screen as the movie runs."

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