A restoration of Cocteau’s dark, magical fairy tale
The enchantments of Beauty and the Beast, Jean Cocteau’s film from 1946 (a 4K restoration of which is now showing at the Pageant as part of a 70th anniversary celebration), seem only to have grown even more seductive with the passage of time. Filmed in black and white and under difficult circumstances in the immediate aftermath of World War II, it continues to cast its own distinctive spell, a rapturous blend of timelessness and modernity.
Based on the 18th century French fairy tale, Cocteau’s version remains faithful to the classic, while adding touches of realism and humor to the filmmaker’s own semi-surrealist approach to fantasy and myth.
The Beauty of the story is Belle (Josette Day), a sweetly modest Cinderella-like character who doesn’t mind being overshadowed by her older sisters, both of whom are neither sweet nor modest.
Her story has a Prince Charming in it, but her main suitor is a country lout named Avenant and the pivotal relationship in her love life is with the eponymous Beast, who has the elegantly dressed body of a man and the leontine head and claws of a smart and fearsome wildcat. (All three roles are played by Jean Marais, a major star who would later play the title role in Cocteau’s Orpheus.)
The suavely avuncular Marcel André plays Belle’s father, and it’s his journey into the Beast’s weirdly haunted domain that sparks the other major strand in Belle’s story. Michel Auclair plays pranksterish Ludovic, who is Avenant’s pal and Belle’s brother, and Mila Parély and Nane Germon play her blatantly avaricious sisters. Auclair and Parély make crucial comic contributions to this fairy tale/fable that bristles with darker possibilities.
Day is an exquisite presence as Belle, impeccably “sweet and innocent” yet never without a somewhat preternatural emotional intelligence. But the most powerful elements of the film revolve around the Cocteau/Marais rendering of the Beast as a creature given to furies that are tender and brutish at the same time.
Finally, though, the film’s imaginative visual imagery is its most deeply appealing and most memorable aspect. The enchanted forest in which the Beast resides is itself a masterpiece of movie magic and poetic artifice. The same goes for the Beast’s rundown palace with its smoldering statues and magical, truth-telling mirrors.