“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Happy 2017 and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column – well, last year it was more of a semi-regular column, but we’re resolved to change that, now that one gigantic project is wrapping up. Ahem. Let’s start again . . .
. . . “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week we’ll take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. So many films premiere each year, but only a very few are remembered and revered years later. That’s not a matter of genre – the Ten Percent is a big tent, with plenty of room for comedy, drama, horror, animation, musical, science fiction and many more. But admission into the tent is not easy to come by. Films in this category last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.
Equally at home writing poetry and novels, painting, sculpting and making films, Jean Cocteau (1889 – 1963) was one of France’s leading intellectual lights, particularly in the time between the two World Wars. His version of Beauty and the Beast (1946) is an absolute must-see for the film buff.
While certain elements (a heroine named “Belle,” some very strange wall sconces in the Beast’s castle, and several aspects of the design of the Beast) are echoed in the 1991 Disney version, Cocteau’s version is dreamy, surreal, and altogether unique. Here, Belle is a daughter in a family of four children. She is dedicated to tending to her father and is modest and self-sacrificing while her brother is a wastrel lay-about and her sisters are vain and superficial. When someone has to go be the sacrifice to the Beast, it is Belle who sneaks into the stable to ride the Beast’s magical horse back to the castle.
The Beast is – well, beastly. He hunts and rips his prey to bits. He drinks from a forest pool by lapping at the water like a cat. And yet, his first words to Belle are, “You are in no danger.”
What truly sets Cocteau’s film apart is the fact that it is a true fairy tale in that it is suitable for children to watch, yet is not intended for them. Fairy tales are cautionary tales with life lessons embedded in the narrative. From Little Red Riding Hood, we learn the perils of leaving the path. From Rumpelstiltskin, we learn the power of names. And from Beauty and the Beast, we learn what can turn a man into a beast and what can turn him back.
Cocteau claimed that one lesson of his film was that anyone who had an unhappy childhood could become a beast – truly a horrifying lesson in post-WW2 Europe, which was overrun with children whose childhoods had been snatched away from them. But the hope lies in the fact that spells can be cast, yes, but they can also be broken and that true love is a mighty tonic indeed.
The film is astonishingly gorgeous. Remembering that this is decades before CGI, Cocteau’s accomplishments become even more noteworthy. He felt he lacked the technical expertise to carry off the trick photography he wanted to use in order to create the rich fantasy world of the Beast’s castle, so he brought aboard acclaimed director Rene Clement as his technical adviser, along with cameraman Henri Alekan to bring the trick shots to fruition. The elaborate Gustave Dore-inspired costumes were created by theatrical designer Christian Berard and were intended to be “as much as the actors could stand up in.”
All of this comes together so beautifully. Just watch as the Beast gently carries Belle into the castle and her clothes transform in the space of a doorway from the sturdy working clothes of a peasant girl to the bejeweled confections of a queen. The world of the Beast is a dream world and is a world where true love actually can grow, develop, and change the hearts of the lovers.
When the real world of Beauty’s family collides with the dream world, we see the terrible results. Yet, as in all the very best of fairy tales, virtue is rewarded and Beauty finds happiness with her prince in the end.
Beauty and the Beast is worth seeing for the sheer gorgeousness of the film. Cocteau was an artist and his source material was rich for overlaying with Freudian symbolism and off-putting magic. His actors – notably Josette Day as Belle and Cocteau’s lover Jean Marais in the triple role of Avenant/Beast/Prince Ardent – play the roles absolutely straight, which brings a heightened sense of magic to the film. The smallest details – glitter in the horse’s mane, magic mirrors, the shadows cast by the magic glove the Beast gives to Beauty – are crafted with care.
I have seen a number of extraordinary films and I have seen a number of beautiful films, but seldom are the two matched to such perfection as they are in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. Truly, this vision is part of the Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the (finally!) forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe. You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.