The basic story, by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, is well known to most of us: A merchant (Marcel André) steals a rose from an estate owned by a beastly looking character. The Beast (Jean Marais) tells the merchant that he will spare his life if one of his daughters can stand in for him. The merchant reluctantly offers up his daughter Belle (Josette Day). She enters the Beast's world completely afraid of him but in time she grows to pity and then understand him. Ultimately she falls in love with him for his inner beauty rather than his external ugliness. And just about the time she accepts him for his ugly nature, he turns into a prince.
It's a fairy tale indeed! But the theme of looking both fear and death in the face and transforming it into something positive comes through pretty clearly. Especially in the end when the film turns all the longings and desires of both Belle and the Beast into reality.
The film has a slow start developing the family that surrounds Belle. We see that her sisters are the evil greedy types who are jealous of Belle's good looks. And we know that they will get their comeuppance in good time.
But once Belle enters the Beast's castle, the film takes on a magical form. One of the main reasons is because of the sheer magnificent look of the film. With the help of fine cinematographer Henri Alekan, who gives the film brilliant images that evoke everything from a Vermeer-like quality to a luminous black & white look, and assistant director Rene Clement, who was a well-known director himself, Cocteau creates one of the most enchanting films of all time.
Cocteau was attempting to approximate the spirit of the tale by conjuring cinematic tricks. But he wasn't interested in special effects that you add in the editing room. He wanted to use tricks that could be caught on camera through superimposition, slow motion, and running the film backwards for dreamlike effect. He also -- with the great production help of Christian Bérard, costume design by Marcel Escoffier, and set design by Rene Moulaert -- created an amazing set, which included candle chandeliers held by arms that protrude from the walls and fireplaces with living face statues that have eyes that follow the occupants around. The score by Georges Auric adds another dimension in loveliness to the film. And it sounds good on the DVD. But one reason the Criterion Collection DVD is so special is that it includes an additional audio track of the opera written by Phillip Glass in 1995, which you can run concurrently with the movie. There are two remarkable things about this opera; one is the fairly precise way that the voices synch up with the actor's lip movements and the other is the way that it enhances the ambiance as well as brings a fresh aspect to the film. I've seen the film half a dozen times and with this new score I noticed things I had never seen before.
One of the best extras on the DVD is a 25 minute documentary Screening at the Majestic, which was made in 1995 and visits the shooting locations for the film and features interviews with DP Henri Alekan and actors Jean Marais and Mila Parely -- who played one of Belle's spiteful sisters.
The DVD, which is the first title that Criterion has re-released, also includes two audio commentary tracks; one by film historian Arthur Knight and the other by writer, cultural historian Christopher Frayling. Both tracks give different views on the making of the film and its significance to film history. There is also the original theatrical trailer that featured an audio track by Cocteau.
Contactmusic.com: 5 / 5
Director: Jean Cocteau
Producer: André Paulvé
Screenwriter: Jean Cocteau