Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946): The Beauty of the Beast

Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946): the Beauty of the Beast

Jean Cocteau worked closely with stage plays and poems in his early years, starting off as a writer and a poet rather than a filmmaker. He once said that poetry saved his life, and his poetic personality led him to a wide range of arts including film, painting, and ceramics. That being said, Cocteau himself would not agree to listing film as an art, for he deliberately stated, “film will only become art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.” To him, film was just another medium to spread ideas. Cocteau released his first film Blood of a Poet in 1930, introducing his mythology using unique visual languages. Yet what came after his first film release was fifteen years of silence. Cocteau returned to the screen with a triumph with Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la bête), a film inspired by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont’s fable of the same title.

There is no point to argue which version of Beauty and the Beast is better, Disney’s or Cocteau’s, for they are two distinct masterpieces each produced under a different objective. Even though the story is similar–a beast falls in love with a young, beautiful lady–Cocteau’s beauty has much more complicated emotions and desires as a real human and as a woman that Disney’s version did not necessarily intend to portray. The facial expressions of the actors were thus very essential to the film. Not to mention the meaning behind Cocteau using the same actor, his very intimate friend Jean Marais, as the cast for the lady’s not-so-favorable admirer, the beast, and the beast’s human form. Cocteau played with the audience’s perception of terror and beauty in a deeper, stranger, and more psychological level.

One of Gustave Dore’s illustration for “Don Quixote,” the illustration series that inspired the costumes in Beauty and the Beast.

Beauty and the Beast is a collection of non-digital effects. Cross-dissolve and stop motion was frequently used to present the beast’s magical castle and its sudden appearance or transformation. Cocteau hired one of the best cameramen, Henri Alekan, who later did Roman Holiday and Wings of Desire, to capture the two-sided world in the film. Some of the most impressive scenes were done through the mirror, presenting the audience with an unexpected twist in image. Rene Clement was also recruited to be the co-director when Cocteau became seriously ill towards the end of filming. Like some other movies made by Cocteau, the film featured the elaborate costumes and make-up designed by Christian Bérard, a central figure in design and illustration. More than that, all visible skin of Marais (as the Beast) would be covered in animal hair every morning. In terms of studio settings, the living statues, arms that extend from the wall and the eyes that would follow, successfully contribute to the strangeness of the castle.

Some have said Beauty and the Beast is essentially a poem. Some suspected part of the inspiration came from Cocteau’s former addiction to opium. Either way, Beauty and the Beast is a beautiful masterpiece about a beast.

  • Beauty and the Beast‘s page on Criterion‘s website, where you can find pictures and links to two film essays on the movie, one by Geoffrey O’Brien and the other by Francis Steegmuller
  • A short introduction to Jean Cocteau by University of Nebraska-Lincoln Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon