Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Love can make an ugly man beautiful. Love can turn a man into a beast.

No 292 - La Belle et La Bete
Director - Jean Cocteau

The arty farty part of me has wanted to see this film for a very long time, something which was reinforced when I found out that it used to scare my mum as a child. So, through the awesome power of LOVEFiLM (really appreciating this system) I was able to get it through my door.

The whole film is very strange and ethereal, looking back at my last review (Russian Ark) it once again echoes the dream like state.
I think that one of the main reasons for this state comes through the movement of the two main characters. Belle and La Bete both move in a very stylised theatrical manner. At first, I thought it may be because the film is still in the early days of transition between silent (which was much more theatrical) and talkies. However, 20 years is not 'early days' in cinematic terms, and the fact that Belle's family move in a natural manner makes me think this was deliberate. This would certainly connect to the fact that Cocteau never saw himself as a film maker, instead he saw himself as a poet, using his films (and he only made 6 films in 30 years) to reflect personal aspects of his life.
The overtly theatrical manner in which the titular characters move work best when in La Bete's castle. It is here that the true nature of Cocteau's fantasy world come into play.

Statues express shock as they watch what unfurls. Lamps and vases are held up by mysterious hands which emerge from rich black walls - an element which is neatly parodied in The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse's House of Dr Pea. It is also here that we see how this film has massively influenced the Disney telling of the story. The house is vast and cavernous and Belle is seemingly left alone by La Bete, however her furniture speaks to her. Sure, we don't have the all singing, all dancing crockery found in Disneyland, but you can see how it may have been an initial influence.
The house, doesn't seem to have a set size or structure. Most of the interior sets are huge cavernous black rooms with a few props in the middle. This allows La Bete to glide from the shadows and make an impressive entrance but it also means that the house is separate from the 'real world' and adds to the strong theatrical dream like feel of La Bete's domain.

There is only one element of this film that could be viewed as a serious flaw (and I, personally, don't think this is the case). This is the lack of reason in the film. There is never a good reason for explaining why the handsome prince has been turned into a Beast (it was a punishment against his parents), neither is there really an explanation on why La Bete changes back, nor why poor Avenant becomes a beast himself. However I think this lack of explanation is key. It is a fairy tale, and fairy tales have rules which apply to themselves and which don't apply to our 'real' world. This is the first film which I have ever seen which begins with a disclaimer asking for a childlike suspension of disbelief. Here is the perfect example of why it is needed. I shouldn't question the events. Just accept they have occurred. And by not explaining it, they haven't opened the enormous can of worms which I tried to dissect in the Disney film.

I briefly mentioned Avenant in the above piece but I want to talk about the actor who played him - Jean Marais. Not only is Jean Marais and Avenant another clear influence on Disney (Avenant pretty much looks and acts like a less twattish Gaston) but he plays both Avenant and La Bete (and therefore subsequently, the Handsome Prince). Avenant is a difficult character to portray. At times he is desperately in love with Belle, and at other times he is a money loving jerk who wants to kill La Bete and steal his treasure.
It is made all the more strange by Avenant becoming a beast and La Bete becoming a prince who looks exactly like Avenant. The fact that Belle is so happy to see him transformed kind of detracts from the film's theme of inner beauty. However, I can hardly use that as a criticism of the film. Unlike Disney, it follows the original story by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and that is the ending she has in her tale.

I can't believe that I have got this far into the tale without really discussing La Bete. He is a truly marvellous cinematic creation. His eyes glisten from a beautiful outfit which seems part feline and part bear. He wears a glorious outfit (which adds to his theatricality.... robes, cloaks and huge ruffs) and the 'Beast' makeup is truly amazing.
What is more special about the Beast is his shame. Here we have a character far more tragic than Disney (and I'm using Disney as my comparison as it is the only other interpretation of this story which I have seen... to my disgrace). Rather than answering back to his curse with rage, this Beast is upset, ashamed, disgusted with his looks. He pleads with Belle not to fear him, he skulks around the castle looking dejected and he speaks in a small timid voice which contradicts his monstrous appearance. His character is tragic but he is also beautiful. A true gentleman and a clear display of his gentle heart.

The film does such a good job of making La Bete a likable character, that you can't help but feel disappointed when he transforms.

And doubly so when Belle so graciously accepts the new Prince's advances.....

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