La Belle et la Bête, for those who don’t speak French, is a literal translation of Beauty and the Beast, the title of the well-known fairy tale adapted in 1946 by poet, artist and avant-garde filmmaker Jean Cocteau.
Beautiful, humble Belle (Day) rejects the advances of the scoundrel Avenant (Marais), as she is busy fretting over her father (André), who is losing his grip on the family fortunes. Then the father gets lost in the woods and meets a lion-faced chap (also Marais) with a spooky as hell castle. There’s a bit of a hoo-hah over an attempt to steal a rose, resulting in either Dad having to die or Belle having to go live with the Beast. By bye, Belle.
You probably know the story from here - Beast wants to marry Belle, Belle starts to question whether he’s all that beastly, love and turmoil ensue. It is, as Howard Ashman wrote, a tale as old as time, and one that Cocteau adapts pretty faithfully from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s classic story.
But it’s the style with which Cocteau brings his fairy tale realm to life that makes this film stand the test of time. Far from the cheery musical world of Disney’s version, Cocteau makes the best use of the black and white format and renders the Beast’s castle at once grounded and Gothic. This is most strikingly manifested when the terrified father first finds himself lost in the castle; arms holding up candelabra turn out, on second glance, to be real human arms, and busts on the mantel open their eyes. The best modern comparison to the magical creepiness on show here is the work of Guillermo del Toro, and so it’s no surprise that del Toro has described Cocteau as a major influence. If there is anything to criticise, it’s that the scenes in the woods surrounding the castle don’t conjure the same spirit as those inside it, with the exterior locations feeling a bit too restricted by studio set-ups. Nevertheless, that’s a small part of the film, and the sumptuous castle sequences are countered effectively by the realism of the scenes set in Belle’s town, with her selfish sisters and scheming brother adding to the mix the kind of family drama that makes it all too believable our heroine would fall for the magic lion-face man.
This 2018 Blu-ray release is as well packaged as we’ve come to expect from the BFI, with the central feature being a superb new 4K restoration. There’s an array of extras: the highlights are a commentary from Sir Christopher Frayling, two fascinating documentaries, and a short 1938 animated adaptation of Perrault’s Bluebeard; plus, there’s the usual trailers, stills, and deleted scenes.
LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE (1946) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: JEAN COCTEAU / STARRING: JEAN MARAIS, JOSETTE DAY, MARCEL ANDRÉ / RELEASE DATE: AUGUST 6TH