One of the greatest of all cinematic fairy tales is not necessarily for children: Jean Cocteau's visually sensuous 1946 film of "Beauty and the Beast" ("La Belle et la Bete").
Not that children won't like it; they're among the special audience Cocteau addresses in his charming prologue, evoking the talismanic words of childhood, "Once Upon a Time." But most preadolescents won't grasp the adult delights and subtle eroticism that make this such a unique work - that catalog of sumptuous, slightly perverse wonders that include human candelabra, magic mirrors, time running backward, and leonine monsters dressed as cavaliers. We watch it all as Cocteau wanted us too: pleased and astonished.
In fact, this is a film of astonishments. Based on the classic children's tale by Mme. Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, it's a fairy tale for grownups who have retained their childlike sense of wonder but who also can appreciate the lush surfaces and psycho-sexual undercurrents Cocteau brought to this timeless tale, which follows the romance of demure Beauty (Josette Day) and her wondrous snarling beau, The Beast (Jean Marais).
Cocteau's source was already full of archetypal moments, which he bemusedly re-creates, subverts and then joyously expands, lavishing on it all his versatile, prodigal gifts as poet, artist and man of the theater. This is a poet-painter's film. In a glistening landscape that suggests Dutch paintings come to life, Cocteau first shows us his beleaguered Cinderella of a Beauty (Day) persecuted by her vain, selfish elder sisters (Mila Parely and Nane Germon) and her scapegrace brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair), in a household collapsing under economic pressures.
Then, after another business reversal, Cocteau shifts to the dark, vivid intensity of Gustave Dore's engravings. We see their poor merchant father (Marcel Andre) falling under the magical spell of The Beast when he stays at the monster's castle for a night during a storm. In this bewitching servantless chateau, with bare human arms holding candles sprouting from the walls, the merchant makes the mistake of plucking a rose for his daughter Beauty. And this so incenses the ferocious Beast - a lion walking erect in black prince's garb - that he demands either the merchant's life or some substitute.
It is Beauty, selfless and loving, who steps forward to save her father and is whisked away on the Beast's magical horse. But when she reaches the castle, the tables are suddenly turned. The Beast may be holding her hostage, but it is she who imprisons the poor Beast's heart, whom he woos and waits on slavishly, begging her to ignore his horrific mien. And it is she who, by maidenly protestations of outraged virtue, is able to conquer and dominate him. Not a little sadomasochism tinges their relations; this is a tale that reminds you at first of "Dracula" and then of Strindberg's "Miss Julie." But it's a fairy tale, after all. When Ludovic's handsome but ruthless buddy Avenant (also played by Marais) tries to storm the castle, the stage is set for a last amazing turnabout and a satisfying "Happy Ever After."
The Beast was played by Marais, the classically handsome actor who was also Cocteau's longtime lover, and for whom the director later wrote the lesser-known 1949 classic "Orpheus." Cocteau liked to mix eroticism with death or the threat of death, and The Beast (like black-clad empress of the underworld Maria Casares in "Orpheus") is one of his most powerful mixed symbols. Marais thoroughly realizes this. He makes a magnetic, gallant and sexual Beast, while Josette Day is a lovely Beauty - in the pale blond tradition of French belles-du-jour that reached its height in the '60s with Catherine Deneuve. (Decades later, Marais and Deneuve co-starred in another memorable film fairy tale, Jacques Demy's charming 1971 film of the Charles Perrault fairy tale "Donkey Skin.")
"Beauty and the Beast," like Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert's great masterpiece "Children of Paradise" (1945), was shot during the Nazi occupation under hard conditions - at a time when French film artists more easily spoke their minds while hiding behind legends or tales of the past. And we feel the weight of oppression on the film. It is a story about escaping a bad life (which includes, disturbingly, a cliched usurer) into the world of imagination and impossible romance, the domain of the seemingly savage but actually gentle Beast.
But "Beauty and the Beast" was also the film of a whole French community of artists - a collaboration between some of that era's most gifted practitioners of film, theater, fashion and fine arts. They included writer-director-artist Cocteau himself (who hand-paints the credits); his glorious cast; Henri Alekan, who supplied the luscious black-and-white cinematography; Georges Auric, who wrote the lyrical score; the young filmmaker Rene Clement ("Forbidden Games"), who acted as "technical consultant"; and the special effects, makeup and d?r wizard Christian Berard, who gives the film much of its special look. Berard's forests and The Beast's castle are the perfect backdrop for the Beast, a cultivated monster with a wardrobe by Escoffier. Does it matter if we know now that Cocteau was more in love with his Beast rather than his Beauty? Should that dampen our sense of wonder? (Or keep away the children, who won't really see it?) Of course not. The current restored version of "Beauty and the Beast" - beautifully remastered and containing Cocteau's long-unseen special prologue and credits - is as much a feat of feverish delight as it was in the dark days of Vichy and WWII. It's a magical passage to a more impassioned and bewitching era. "Astonish Me!" was Cocteau's special motto. Astonish us he does.
4 stars (out of 4)
"Beauty and the Beast"
Directed and written by Jean Cocteau; based on the story by Mme. Leprince de Beaumont; technical consultant Rene Clement; photographed by Henri Alekan; edited by Claude Iberia; production designed by Christian Berard, Lucien Carre; music by Georges Auric; costumes by Escoffier; makeup and special effects by Berard; produced by Andre Paulve. A Cowboy Pictures release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; 773-871-6604. In French; English subtitled. Running time: 1:33. No MPAA rating (family).
The Beast/Avenant/The Prince - Jean Marais
Beauty - Josette Day
The Father - Marcel Andre
Adelaide - Mila Parely
Felicie - Nane Germon
Ludovic - Michel Auclair Usurer - Raoul Marco
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times