Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946, France)

  Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is an incredible romantic fantasy born out of the ashes of postwar France. At the time Cocteau filmed his masterpiece, there was a question of whether the French cinema would survive. Cocteau reaffirmed the cinema’s survival with a tale that looked back toward childhood and innocence. Cocteau’s lover and lead actor Jean Marais introduced him to the idea of adapting Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 1757 story. In the intro the film, Cocteau asks us to suspend our disbelief and fall into the world of his film.

While the production of Beauty and the Beast was plagued by postwar scarcity, you wouldn’t know it from watching. The film expresses a world of visual opulence, from the incredible costumes to the magnificent sets - including the Beast’s memorable castle, whose living candelabra inspired the 1991 Disney adaptation of de Beaumont’s story. The film’s practical effects, made on a shoestring budget, have a magical quality. 

Many have written about the film’s allegorical nature in the context of post-WWII France. The story of a family who has lost their riches undoubtedly resonated with a large segment of the French viewing public. Yet the film also has other thematic complexities. Most notable is the question of Belle’s agency in the film. On the one hand, she is captive to the Beast, being forced to stay in his castle. On the other hand, she is also in control of the Beast, making him subject to her every whim. This dynamic raises interesting ambiguities with the gender dynamics of the film.

It should be mentioned that Jean Marais’ makeup as the Beast is incredible. Supposedly it took eight hours to apply and remove every day, and this effort shows itself on the screen. Certainly few fantasy films have topped Beauty and the Beast.



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