Jean Cocteau was a poet and a filmmaker, marvelously weaving together a tapestry that mystically incorporated both words and sounds with the beautiful visions that lay captured in his mind. Although he made many films, Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) did not consider himself primarily a filmmaker but a poet; he also painted, sculpted, wrote novels and plays, and stirred the currents of the Paris art scene, including such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Diaghliev.. His first film, the surrealistic "Blood of a Poet," was made in 1930, the same year as Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel's notorious "L'Age d'Or." Cocteau's film included images that became famous, as when a mirror turns into a pool of water, and when a mouth wiped off a painting affixes itself to his hand.
As a filmmaker, he is best remembered for mainly five films: La Belle et la Bête (1946), Les Parents Terribles (1949), and the so-called “Orphic Trilogy”, comprised of the aforementioned The Blood of a Poet (1930), Orphée (1949), and Le Testament d'Orphée (1960). His film style was uniquely his own, emphasizing poetry, intellectualism, and fantasy.
Cocteau's vision of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a visual marvel, borne of symbolism, metaphor and mythology, a fairy tale that a child could appreciate for its romance and beauty. It is one of the most magical of all films. He gave full reign to his passion for fantasy while somewhat curbing his tendency toward pseudo-intellectualism. Many viewers and critics consider ‘La Belle et la Bête’ his finest film work.
Cocteau used haunting images and bold Freudian symbols to suggest that emotions are at a boil in the subconscious of his characters. Cocteau’s fantasy is alive with trick shots and astonishing effects, giving us a Beast who is lonely like a man and misunderstood like an animal. Like the Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont mid-18th century version of the fairy tale on which it's based, the film bluntly celebrates a love that privileges interior beauty over external repulsiveness.
However Cocteau, the poet and surrealist, was not making a "children's film" but was adapting a classic French tale that he felt had a special message after the suffering of World War II: essentially anyone who has an unhappy childhood may grow up to be a Beast. Cocteau wanted to make a poem, wanted to appeal through images rather than words, and although the story takes the form of the familiar fable, its surface seems to be masking deeper and more disturbing currents.
The sets are absolutely stunning. The Beast’s dwelling is one of the strangest ever-put on film, a castle with live statues, self-opening doors etc. With designer Christian Berard, Cocteau transforms the architectural space into living, breathing form, it is at once an enchanted palace and a stifling prison. There is something haunting about the way this house dresses and feeds Belle, anticipating her every need. The costumes were so elaborate they were said to be "as much as the actors could stand up in." The Beast’s costume and make-up can still put to shame much of what’s done today. The soundtrack by George Auric is atmospheric and haunting – he was known for such classics as ‘Rififi’, ‘Waged of Fear’, ‘Roman Holiday’ and Ealing Classics: ‘Lavender Hill Mob’ and ‘Passport to Pimlico’
The tall and imposing actor Jean Marais, also Cocteau’s lover for many years, who possessed an extraordinary profile and matinee idol looks, plays friend, Beast and prince with great skill deftly changing his approach – so shallow and superficial as the pompadoured prince and so appealing as the Beast. He also appeared in Cocteau’s Orphée (1949). Apparently Marlene Dietrich, who held Cocteau's hand during the suspenseful first screening of the film at a Paris studio, confesses she missed the Beast screaming out "Where is my beautiful Beast?"
Cocteau chooses to keep Belle so childish, despite her hardships. Josette Day exuded purity, saintliness, and the requisite range of facial responses to her ugly suitor's advances. Day was married to Marcel Pagnol and starred in his classic ‘La Fille Du Puisatier’ [Well Diggers Daughter] and ended her career as an actress in 1950 when only 36 years old. The aura of amour drifts through every scene, underpinning the story and leading us to a triumphant conclusion, which celebrates the victory of love over all obstacles. Those willing to accept Cocteau's contract - he pleads our indulgence and suspension of disbelief in a written preamble - will find the film enchanting.
Upon the film's December 1947 New York City release, critic Bosley Crowther called the film a "priceless fabric of subtle images and a fabric of gorgeous visual metaphors”. The film is a spectacular fantasy – its devices penetrate the usual conventions of narrative, and appeal at a deeper psychic level and may very well be one of the most enchanting and beautiful films of all times. It is certainly a fine example of cinematic magic used to its full potential.