Wednesday, May 25, 2011

FI: Beauty and the Beast (1946)

Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête)
France, 1946
Directed by Jean Cocteau

Fairy tales, with their dream-like surrealism and exaggerated morality, are not always a good fit for the cinema. Film brings technical limitations and an expectation of verisimilitude that sometimes combine to transform the fantastical into the laughable, especially when looking back on the old technology of bygone eras. But Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête might well be the greatest fairy tale film of all time, and its look holds up well even next to today's glut of candy-colored CGI fantasy features.

The film is visually stunning, and Henri Alekan's black-and-white photography is deep, rich, and gorgeously layered. Everything from the costume design to the sets contribute to the film's unreal, fantastical atmosphere. The visual effects, most achieved through practical means on set and in-camera, are miles ahead of most films from the era, and their influence can still be seen today in the work of filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro. Even the Beast's makeup, certainly the most dated feature of the film, stands up strong and allows Jean Marais's expressive eyes and face to show through.

Cocteau—a poet as well as a filmmaker—uses his efficient script to remind viewers of just how harsh fairy tale morality can be. Belle (the balletic, graceful Josette Day) and her kindly father (Marcel André) are put-upon and "good." Her brother, mother, and sisters are greedy, cruel, and "bad;" there are no grey areas. And taking advantage of the way fairly tales aren't always kind with who they reward and who they punish, the film maintains tension over who will "win" until the very end. A true masterpiece of the form, La Belle et la Bête is a treasure, a film no cinephile should miss.

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