Monday, 4 October 2010

La Belle et La Bête

We all have that beast in us, but we lack the knowhow of how to transform from the beast into something truly human. This fairytale however knew exactly what would tame the savage heart, love. If it was only that simple for the rest of us. The story starts with the damsel in distress (Josette Day, Belle) and the powers that bind her in this situation, her siblings - especially her sisters (Mila Parély, Félicie and Nane Germon, Adélaïde). Her father (Marcel André, Belle’s father/Merchant) through no fault of his own has to take some responsibility for this environment; with his failing business and lack of money. The only son (Michel Auclair, Ludovic) is no help what-so-ever, becoming a full-time wastrel around the house, with his equally lazy friend (Jean Marais, La Bête (The Beast), The Prince and Avenant) in tow, who has a crush on Belle. The precious sisters have no taste for humble pie and do everything they can to keep up an appearance of grandeur, putting Belle to work doing menial chores - too stubborn to recognise that they are all in the same boat. But this does not faze Belle, realising that her sacrifice is to keep her father and family content. The atmosphere at the start of the film is very light with more than a few humorous scenes, creating a comic feel to the air of magic which surrounds the production. The film continues in this fashion with each cast member solidifying their characters strengths and weaknesses.
 “Beauty and the Beast, the first film of Cocteau’s own since The Blood of a Poet, is by general consent one of the most enchanting pictures ever made” I agree it was enchanting, and the visual effects were very satisfying in places, but, one of the most enchanting pictures ever made, I don’t think so. This review, written 3 June 1991 was almost 20-years-ago, nevertheless, between 1946 and 1991, there have been some real gems. Disney’s Beauty And The Beast for instance, is just as superior, if not more so - nothing can compare to an animated fantasy when it is done well. The only barrier animation really faces is time - deadlines - more to the point. One’s imagination can be realised with animation, characters brought to life, with worlds born from the things dreams are made of.
What of Legend, and Jim Henson’s Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, with live action and puppets bringing magic and suspense from start to finish. Cocteau introduces suspense half-way into his film, when we see the Merchant (father) arrive at the port master’s office as he tries to negotiate the release of his goods, but to no avail. Within the gloomy room the windows portray the darkness and fog, which then changes the mood of the film, as the port master ushers the merchant out into the night, turning down his every request. The merchant disappointed with his travel to the port now faces a more uncertain journey back. The burden of coming back empty handed, together with the fog causes the elderly merchant to lose his way, bringing him to an unfamiliar part of the forest. He continues on this path until he reaches a magnificent castle. The castle seems almost alive, with doors that open and close by themselves, statues that watch you with piercing eyes, and arms bearing candles that protrude from the walls. Outside in the courtyard the merchant sees the Rose that he had promised Belle, and plucks it. Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête has a lot to do with the way you know the story of Beauty and the Beast. For example, Cocteau came up with the details of the Beast's castle that we're familiar with: talking doors, food that serves itself, and so on. The Disney version ripped this off and added the voice of Angela Lansbury. Cocteau's castle is much creepier”

Creepier maybe, but the Disney version added a better understanding through animation of the character of Cocteau’s mansion and its inhabitants; bringing to life candlestick holders, a clock and, a tea pot and cup, which did not seem soulless and creepy like the original.

The mood still remains tense, with the use of the darkness and shadows to intensify the scenes, allowing Belle and the Beast’s theatrical acting to be more prominent – particularly around the dinner table when the Beast asks Belle to marry him. However, she turns him down, expressing her true feelings about the beast. This doesn’t sway the Beast. He professes that he will, every night at 7, ask for her hand in marriage at the dinner table. Belle and the Beast form an uneasy alliance with Belle insisting on her privacy and constructing boundaries by which the Beast is happy to oblige. As he puts her needs before his, Belle’s immediate dislike for the Beast allows her to see his kinder side. Despite his ugliness, Belle starts to see the true nature of the Beast, although she glimpses his savagery on the few occasions he believes himself to be alone. Belle begins to understand the battle the Beast faces within himself, which allows her to pity the monster. Belle now comfortable in her new abode gains more and more feelings for the Beast as time goes by, but the sole memory of her sickly father tugs at her heart strings. She convinces the Beast to let her go to visit him, but in doing so the Beast asks her to promise that she will return in 7 days or he will die, and entrusts her with the five secrets of his powers - The Rose, The Glove, The Horse, The Key to Diana’s pavilion, and The Mirror. The key and the glove are given to Belle; the glove in particular, is used as a way of teleporting from the castle back to her family’s estate. This is executed very well, as she emerges from the wall like water being poured through a crack, landing back in her bedroom.
The key is placed on a bedside table and forgotten about by Belle. She rushes out of the room to see her father whose bedridden body soon comes to life from the sight of his daughter he had presumed dead. The rest of the family are soon alerted, and she unravels the mystery of her disappearance to the enchanted castle, and her life with the Beast. However, she makes the ill-fated mistake of telling her siblings the circumstances of her departure - which she must return in 7 days or the Beast, will die. She tells of the love he has for her, entrusting her with the key, and the secrets of his powers. You can imagine what happens after that, you are right, the siblings plot against Belle, planning to kill the Beast and relieve him of his treasures.
I agree, the ending did seem rushed, I think the audience would have appreciated a little more insight into the Beast’s powers, especially the reason for Diana's pavilion. Who amongst us wouldn't want to rid ourselves of the animal deep within our psyche and elevate to the highest of heights. Although predictable – with the beast transforming into a handsome prince, and the wrong doers punished - I found this an entertaining production. In 1946 I would have marvelled at the special effects and the dreamy retelling of this fable, but like many films which rely heavily on the special effects, the production becomes dated, and all that remains is a story and the acting. The story, a simple tale of never judge a book by its cover, and acting which is mediocre in some places and very theatrical in others. It is the kind of film you would enjoy watching after waking up hung-over on Sunday at 12noon.

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