BFI Gothic Season – La Belle et la Bête (1946)
The fourth and final phase of the BFI’s glorious Gothic season is now upon us and in an incremental drift away from the ghoulish and horrific the programme has turned to matters of the heart, of narcotic romance, brooding lust and dark sexuality with the ‘Love is A Devil’ strand of their enormously successful and most ambitious season to date. I do like to open and close the waning years with films that could widely be considered as ‘classics’, given the vagaries of screenings and alternative commitments this hasn’t always been feasible, but I have managed to programme quite an ambitious final push at the BFI for the inception of 2014 in order to soak up the final month of this fantastic season, I’m just a little aggravated with myself that I haven’t been able to make more of an effort since last August. Still, I can’t imagine a finer method to inaugurate the year that with Jean Cocteau’s 1946 classic of world cinema La Belle Et La Bête, lavished with a new 4K digital enchantment which is ravishingly resplendent on the big screen, for fans of cinema this is an absolute must see as a magical distraction from the perils and prostrations of this most dreary of months. Initially it feels strange to consider that the film was shot in the dying embers of the war and occupation yet doesn’t seem to reference the darkness and betrayal of the previous six years, it’s a film which wears its romantic revelry and burning brazier of cinematic wonder on its glittering embroidered sleeve, with a spellbinding elixir of technical magic and photographic beauty it’s a film which carves its own space in cinematic time, unencumbered by the distracting anxieties of the real, non-fictitious world. In terms of Cocteau I have touched upon one of the great triumvirate of pre-war European cinema before with Orphée, alongside with Jean Vigo and Jean Renoir he is considered one of European cinema’s great pioneers of the era, and as an avant garde artist who moved from theatre to film his associations and romances with the likes of Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso, Nijinsky, Kenneth Anger, Jean Hugo, Yul Brynner, Marlene Dietrich, Coco Chanel, Igor Stravinsky and Édith Piaf means that he must have had quite a few tales to tell and stories to weave…..
Opening with a theatrical shattering of the fourth wall the film makes its intentions clear, as a glimpse behind the scenes of the crew and technicians assembling for action precursors the presentation of a clapper board and a jaunty scored overture, before a written preamble sets the stage of the fairy tale with a closing, leading utterance of ‘Once Upon A Time….’ Immediately Cocteau is casting an incantation of fantasy and signalling an omission of reality, appealing to the long dormant childish embrace of enchantment over reason, even as he acknowledges the illusory power of the silver screen. The Beauty and the Beast myth is firmly etched into our culture alongside many other fairy tales, in this conjuration of the fable Beauty (Josette Day) is swiftly imprisoned in the phantasmagoric Chateau of the mysterious Beast (Jean Marais) as a punishment for her fathers transgression, he mistakenly purloining a white rose from the canine creature’s garden for which the penalty is usually death. In order to save her father Belle agrees to become the Beast’s surrogate prisoner and he swiftly falls in love with the delicate and noble creature, proposing marriage on a nightly basis which she dutifully refuses. As the days stumble into weeks Belle incrementally warms to the curious Beast, her initial pity thawing to his romantic ardour who tests her by letting her return home to her family and telling her that if she doesn’t return to him within a week, he will die of grief.
Designed to reflect the illustrations of Gustave Doré and the paintings of Jan Vermeer this may be one of the most beautiful films of the first half century of cinema, before colour usurped monochrome’s crown, before Technicolor triumphed as the veneer of celluloid fantasy. This digital restoration genuinely sparkles on-screen, from the glittering facets in the beasts luxurious finery to Belle’s magical tears transforming into clinquant diamonds the film weaves a dexterous and spirited spell, adrift in a prism of legend and lore, a shared iconography which transcends cultural and historical boundaries. There are psychological depth charges lurking beneath the surface, that’s why these fairy tales endure in the collective unconscious across numerous generations, with symbolic charges built into the plot that hold some uncomfortable truths on the human condition, clad in fictitious form to be easily digestible to a younger audience. That’s why Kubrick researched texts and scholarly tomes such as Bruno Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment with his co-screenwriter Diane Johnson when crafting The Shining and infusing it with sly fairy tale motifs (consider ‘Little pigs, little pigs let me come in’, Wendy’s claim that she will be ‘leaving a trail of breadcrumbs just to find my way out’ or the final plunge into the labyrinth), it’s that density of image and idea which approaches the status of masterpiece. In La Belle Et La Bete a stolen white virginal rose is the panacea to Belle’s imprisonment, a crime accidentally committed by her father after being driven into the Beasts realm following a disorienting storm, the Beast’s glove is her transformational route of escape, the symbolic informing the physical, narrative sublimated to the symbolic and symbiotic.
Despite the submerged symbolism being densely embeded throughout the film its unconscious exculpations have reverberated throughout the art form, it’s not just Polanski with those grasping wall-mounted hands in Replusion who fell under Cocteau’s sorcerers ways but the film and his wider work is also a major influence on David Lynch, that thieving Lumbertown swine lifting the whole reverse cranking effect and phantasmic milieu of the these films and brewing his own corrosive concoction of nightmares and dreamscapes – the Black Lodge is modern Cocteau in all its mystifying and colourful malaise. Seeing the film again I was also stuck by individual portraits and sojourns into the uncanny which also bear sigils of this film, I was reminded of Legend in which Mia Sara wears a costume reminiscent of that which Belle inhabits, of the intersection of fairy and fear in Labyrinth and of course Disney’s retelling of the myth back in the 1990’s, complete with French anthropomorphic candle holders, amusingly named Lumiere which stands as a dual homage to Cocteau and those pioneering French siblings. Overshadowing them all of course is a certain Mexican auteur whom has frequently expressed his total adoration of the film and its grip of the romantic and monstrous, after sating his appetite on big budget behemoths such as Pacific Rim one can fervently pray that he gets back to the strand of his career which follows this potent path through the labyrinth such as, erm, Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos or The Devil’s Backbone.
A few flickering embers to close from this big screen viewing, Cocteau has his camera glide around the characters within his expressionist sets with a porous, ethereal quality, rarely cutting to glowing close-ups of Belle and the Beast to punctuate key emotional moments, this control and discipline of composition is pure storytelling from a cinematic standpoint and quite an effective change to the hyper-edited kids movies of today. That thought leads me onto the proliferation of animated movies over the past couple of decades which attempt to straddle two audiences, the rapt eyed youngsters and their jaded parents, it seems that any live-action effort such as this has been crushed under the juggernaut of Disney, Dreamworks, Pixar and the other animation companies, is there no space for live-action tales of this complexion anymore? There is a key strand if cinema born by Melies, enhanced and evolved through films such as this by Cocteau and out through the enchantments of early Spielberg, a casting of cinematic wonder which I find animated fare has crushed, apart from Pixar’s best efforts (and lets not get into that argument about how they have plunged into mediocrity in recent years after the Mouse House acquisition) when was the last time an E.T. or Close Encounters really arrested the popular imagination, which wasn’t based on pre-existing media? There’s LOTR I guess and I’m probably missing some blindingly obvious texts (one frame of this film has more magic and wonder that the entirety of the Pirates or Harry Potter franchises combined, and yes I am an elitist snob but don’t let that stand in the way of empirical, visual evidence) but that’s my general, grumpy and growling attitude. Anyway, apparently the current Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray release has the option to screen the film with a Philip Glass score which he composed back in 1994, and I’m sure this 4K transfer will arrive on a scintillating new Blu-Ray so we can all live happily ever after, but before then be sure to catch this on the big screen while you can if you have an appetite for a film which is guaranteed to dismiss those morbid January slumbers;