Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (“Beauty and the Beast”) (1946) is quite simply one of the great films. It is also hands down the most completely successful transference of a fairy tale to the motion picture screen. It is a film that has touched and influenced innumerable filmmakers. There are traces of it in the works of such diverse talents as Ken Russell, Joel Schumacher and Spike Lee—not to mention Guillermo del Toro, whose recent Pan’s Labyrinth owes a huge debt to Cocteau’s film. (Even the manner in which del Toro’s faun (Doug Jones) speaks, as well as his facial movements, are grounded in the Cocteau film.) Seeing the film, it’s easy to understand why it has had this kind of impact. Cocteau so completely created a separate and wholly magical world in this film that to experience it leaves the viewer changed for all time.
Made for very little money right after World War II, the film is a masterpiece of invention. (The striking scene set amongst laundry drying was cooked up primarily because sheets hanging on clotheslines were cheaper than a “proper” set.) Cocteau was not a professional filmmaker by any means. The surrealist poet, writer, playwright, painter was just too full of ideas to ever settle into any single means of expression, but he loved film. Not in the least because, as he viewed it, film had the quality of a dream and the ability to make that dream a reality. He made at least two masterworks, Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus (1950), both starring his long-time lover Jean Marais.
Of the two, Beauty and the Beast is the more popular, probably because it works as both a magnificent version of the fairy tale (never stinting on the darker, more horrific aspects of such tales) and as something more. There are deep undercurrents to the film, suggesting a dark, horrible and wonderful secret that might be glimpsed if only the viewer stares hard enough. If any film can be said to truly possess the quality of a dream, Beauty and the Beast is that film. It’s pure magic—and magic created without the benefit of grandiose special effects, done simply and effectively, never pulling you out of the story to wonder how the filmmaker did this or that. As in a dream, things are simply allowed to be: Explanations are unnecessary. The magical just exists, and the viewer accepts it. If we pause to think about it, we know that the Beast is really the filmmaker’s boyfriend in beguiling makeup, but we’re disinclined to do so because it feels so real in the world of the film. (It’s been reported that either Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich (accounts vary), crushed by the transformance of the Beast into the handsome prince at the end, cried out, “Where is my beautiful Beast?”) The film casts a spell like no other, and it lingers long after the final image has faded from view.