AKA: La Belle et la Bete, Beauty and the Beast (1946)
Year Released: 1946
Distributor: The Criterion Collection
Running Time: 93 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: The Scarlet Flower, Beauty and the Beast (1962), Beauty and the Beast (1976), Panna a Netvor, Beauty and the Beast (1987 film), Beauty and the Beast (1987 TV series), Beauty and the Beast (1991 Disney film), Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, Beauty and the Beast/Blood of Beasts, Beauty and the Beast (2009), Beastly, Beauty and the Beast (2012 TV series), Beauty and the Beast (2014), Brahmarakshas, Little Miss Perfect, Beauty and the Beast (2017 Disney live-action remake), The Little Town
For Fans Of: Cinderella, The Scarlet Flower, A Mermaid in Paris, The Phantom Baron
Notes: There are two versions of this take on Beauty and the Beast. There’s the original screenplay and audio from Jean Cocteau as well as the opera soundtrack from Philip Glass. The original soundtrack was used for this review.
-Beauty and the Beast was originally written by 18th century French fantasy writer Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve which she wrote in 1740. One of the authors who influenced her was Madame d’Aulnoy who is best known for her story The Green Serpent which also involved a prince who was transformed into a creature.
-This is the 2nd film that was directed by Jean Cocteau, but it was the first film adaptation of Beauty and the Beast in history. To put this in perspective, this version predates the Disney animated movie that everyone knows by 45 years.
-French actor Jean Marais did double duty playing the Beast as well as Avenant. He is also known for his acting work in the 1942 adaptation of Carmen, the original Count of Monte Cristo film, and the Orpheus movies (also directed by Cocteau). Interestingly enough, Marais’s face was on the album cover of The Smith’s “This Charming Man” single.
-This version of Beauty and the Beast influenced Angels in America where a dream sequence involves a recreation of the Beast’s castle as well as one of the characters reading a Jean Cocteau book leading up to that scene. Also, Stevie Nicks wrote a song involving that movie after watching it back in 1983. During her solo concerts, her she would play clips of this version while playing that song.
-The music was handled by Georges Auric who was part of the Les Six collective in France. He would use his compositional skills in Roman Holiday, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the 1956 version), and The Innocents to name a few.
This is the big kick off for my Alternate Disney August project. For all of this month, I’m going to review movies associated with stories that Disney adapted from at some point. This is like going into alternative universes like I’m Doctor Who or Haruka from Noein as a film critic, not going to lie. Mickey Mouse’s versions of all these stories tend to be treated like the “real” versions even though they’re far from accurate to their source material. Reviewing something like this isn’t exactly new for me since I’ve reviewed Mulan: Rise of a Warrior in the early days of Iridium Eye. Despite that version coming out over a decade after the Disney version came out, I applauded the accuracy, authenticity, and for trying to not be like the animated version that everybody knows. One could also make a strong case of A Tree of Palme being the anime avant-garde Pinocchio of sorts which I won’t argue against. This time around, I get to cover a version of a Disney story that predates their version with this movie which would be the first time I’ve done so with a live action film or 2nd time covering media that predates the Disney version if you count Kimba the White Lion which one can make a strong argument given the shameless plagiarism that was against Osamu Tezuka’s characters. Much like that OTHER example as well as Mulan, I get to cover something connected to the Renaissance Era of that animated canon.
How does the debut film adaptation from noted avant-garde artist/director/poet/screenwriter Jean Cocteau fare in this tale as old as time? Oh, come on! Like you weren’t expecting me to at least reference the famous 90s version at some point when you clicked on this article?
For those who don’t know about other takes on this famous fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast takes place in the French countryside where a woman named Belle lives with her father as well as her two sisters and brother. She is busy cleaning the house while her sisters Felicity and Adelaide give her all kind of guff with their entitled attitudes. Her brother Ludovic is supportive of her, but he ends up getting drunk and fooling around. Their family struggles with money since the father lost some ships at sea for his business, but when he returns, he claims to have come across an opportunity to amass a lot of fortune. He asks his children what they want from this alleged treasure trove with the elder sisters wanting exotic pets (a parrot and monkey to be specific) while Belle just wants a rose. The father wants to make good on his promise to get those gifts. He goes over to an enchanted castle and picks a rose before being caught by the owner the Beast. This character threatens him with the death penalty for picking the only thing he cares about, but is willing to spare his life if one of his daughters goes to his castle. Belle volunteers to spare her father’s life and is shocked to see the Beast. Despite his frightening looks, he waits hand and foot for Belle, yet he asks her every day if she wants to marry him which she refuses even though she sees his kind nature. He’s not the first person to be refused her hand in marriage as Ludovic’s attractive, yet toxic friend Avenant constantly wants to marry her even though he has a bad temper and willing to slap women around without a second thought. Belle is still treated like a queen in Beast’s castle, but she is concerned about her father becoming ill. How will she be able to go back to her family when she’s treated better by the Beast while also being concerned that Ludovic and Avenant trying to kill this creature?
Don’t lie. When you hear about Beauty and the Beast, you instantly think about the Disney version. This movie straight out the gate is NOTHING like the version that it predates by decades. There was definitely a bit of a Cinderella kind of vibe (which it also predates Walt’s version) with the sisters treating her like garbage, but I swear it doesn’t always play out like that story. This version in Belle is more progressive than I think a lot of people give credit for. She isn’t trying to be married anytime soon and she straight up puts the Beast in the friend zone in their interactions. While I wouldn’t call her some feminist icon, I do appreciate her being smart and not being obsessed with being hitched which is amazing. Keep in mind that so many fairy tale and princess stories wouldn’t have that kind of nuance even decades after Cocteau’s version of Beauty and the Beast came out. If this were released today, people would praise it as a “woke” fantasy. While the Beast does low-key come off as a simp to Belle with him lavishing her with gifts and spoiling her at times, I do appreciate him not being abusive towards her at all. His self-loathing is also relatable with him refusing compliments from others and thinking he’s a worthless creature even though he’s taking care of Belle. The relationship dynamic also averts the bestiality implications of other takes in this story (THANK GOD!) with Belle not wanting to marry or fall in love with him until he eventually transforms back in his original human form which I won’t spoil because the situation is tragic for that to happen. Despite this being made in the 40s, I was really impressed with the effects and set design. The enchanted castle really does look magical and it was fascinating with the chandelier hands, the arms pouring people drinks, the sentient statue busts, or the magic mirror. A lot of these effects were ahead of it’s time. This was like a bit of an art house take on fairy tales. Given Cocteau’s other experimental/avant-garde works, it wasn’t surprising how some of that aesthetic would creep in even though it would be considered a mainstream movie in France. There was a healthy balance with the artsy and the more straightforward presentation. Much like the aforementioned Mulan: Rise of a Warrior movie, this inaugural Beauty and the Beast movie has a sense of authenticity to the source material from what I’ve read (even though there were a few changes like how there’s less siblings than the original book for example), and the fact that it’s a French fairy tale adapted by French filmmakers which is a big plus, so they know what they were doing.
Beauty and the Beast does have a few thorns in this otherwise delicate film. There are dated elements given the time it was made. Some transitions looked very cheesy as well as haphazard and the Beast’s makeup job doesn’t hold up at certain points of the film especially near the end. Felicity and Adelaide come off as one-note antagonists and it’s never fully explained why they’re so cruel to Belle. There’s some envy which does make sense, but they really come off as more shallow than presented. The reason why the Beast became the way he did was even more shallow. I won’t spoil it for you, but it was handwaved in only seconds and is certainly not like the backstory of the enchantress showing up at the prince’s door like in the Disney version. Trust me, you’re going to be underwhelmed when the secret is revealed when the Beast turns into the prince. The fate of Ludovic is never explored. He just seemed wishy-washy with him being a roguish, yet protective big brother, but at the same time it’s not clear what happens to him after him and Avenant tries to break into Diana’s Pavilion in the finale to try and get the Beast’s treasure. They could have at least explained what was going to happen to him since they talk about the fates of the rest of Belle’s family even if it was just one throwaway sentence. Most of the story makes as much sense as it can despite being a fairy tale with magic and stuff (which was certainly intentional with Cocteau’s fourth-wall breaking prologue text), but they could’ve added more layers to some of the magic on display here.
While I would never expect The Criterion Collection to license anything related to fairy tales, I will say that it was a worthy addition to their catalogue of other international, art house, and reputable films. Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is an authentic take on that original fairy tale that still has a magical feel to it without ever feeling childish. Some of the special effects are dated, but some were still impressive to this day. The portrayal of Belle is underrated in how dynamic of a character she is without coming off as a Mary Sue while at the same time not being obsessed with falling in love which I don’t think gets enough credit especially with Disney only recently making self-referential dialogue for their newer films ad nauseum (Frozen, Moana, and Wreck-It Ralph 2 being the most obvious when it comes to female characters). Is this better than the Disney version in my opinion? Yes, it is! I wouldn’t call it the best movie of all time, but I do get why some people who know about classic and international movies would consider it top-tier. Beauty and the Beast is a good watch and a very sound divergence from Mickey Mouse’s take on that story.
Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1-2 points if you like classic fantasy movies.
-Add 1 point if you’re a Jean Cocteau fan.
-Subtract 1-4 points if you want every fairy tale movie to be like the Disney versions.
-Subtract 1 point if you like more recent films with special effects.
-Creative and magical set design as well as the aesthetics
-Belle is more progressive of a heroine than intended
-Avoids unfortunate implications of Stockholm Syndrome and bestiality
-Plot holes with Ludovic
-Shallow background characters
-Some dated special effects
Final Score: 7/10 points
Content Advisory: Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast is fine for most families, but it is more mature than the Disney version. There’s some blood with an injured deer seen only for a few seconds and with the Beast having some gore on him after killing someone off-screen or even face death himself. There’s drinking and smoking with pipes in a few scenes. The sisters manage to say “hell” as a mild oath which would unintentionally come off like someone dropping an F-bomb if all they know is the version from the House of Mouse. One character does die onscreen in the finale and Avenant has a tendency to be physically abusive with the women which can be disturbing.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Beauty and the Beast is property of The Criterion Collection. The DVD cover is from The Criterion Collection and is property of The Criterion Collection.