Not rated because it's old. (I sometimes don't write fancy-like.) It's the fairy tale. We've all been kind of blind to the Beauty and the Beast story for a long time. It seems fairly harmless, until you take into account the fact that the Beast is absolutely awful. (I will be going into this later.) In this version, some of the more unlikable characters die. There are little cruelties that characters perform, but nothing that would be objectionable to children. Not rated.
DIRECTORS: Jean Cocteau and Rene Clement
I suppose I live in an era where I have to get used to writing, despite national tragedies. How unfair is that? This is the country right now and I now realize that if I didn't maintain my arbitrary schedule, the world will just keep getting worse and worse. I don't mean to sound so pessimistic, but it's shocking how bad the world gets. I guess I have to take some degree of solace that I get to write about Beauty and the Beast as opposed to something that is going to get me really riled up.
The Cocteau version of Beauty and the Beast is one of those gorgeous movies that I feel is the product of an artist being allowed to be an artist. The story naturally lends itself to experimentation, especially in 1946. I'm going to be going into some of the choices that are made in the movie, both story and script wise, but watching the Cocteau version of Beauty and the Beast kind of makes the Disney one feel vapid. When I was a kid, I loved this movie. I was just the prime age for it when it came out. It wasn't my favorite. I reserve that one for Aladdin. But it was a solid movie. Yeah, some of the animation stuff, when it came to the implementation of computers, was probably pretty revolutionary and Gaston's song is a bop. But watching that movie, it isn't really a quality work. If anything, it looks cheap not just by today's standards, but by other Disney standards. And I'm clearly alone on this one because it was nominated for a ton of awards. But for Disney, Beauty and the Beast was always going to be a slam dunk. It's kind of why the Cocteau version is so appealing.
The framing of the story really allows Cocteau to have fun. While Disney decided to anthropomorphize the objects in the house, Cocteau implies hidden sentience behind every object. The objects in the Disney version are cursed, sure. But they lead basically functional lives. The objects in the Cocteau version seem truly magical. The candles on the walls being escorted by hands, our first real introduction to the cursed objects, are particularly effective. I know that he filmed that scene in reverse to have the candle magically ignite, but it is some cool, other-worldly stuff. I love the faces in the wall. The only thing that Cocteau does that didn't really grab me as a cool or spooky effect is the door. You probably don't remember the door either. The door speaks to Belle and declares its presence. That's it. The door doesn't really have a big part. It just says, "I'm a door and I'm alive." Cool. That should have probably been an important moment, but it just didn't happen.
But I really want to look at the same themes that I looked at when I wrote about the 2017 live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast. This is a bad story. Now, I will say that Cocteau makes it a less bad story, but it is still a terrible message running throughout all versions of the tale. Before I start condemning the story altogether, I will stress things that make Cocteau version more palatable. Yes, the Beast is a real threat in both versions. The only reason that Belle is there is to save her father, who made a reasonable mistake given the circumstances. But the Beast in Cocteau's version is actually fairly well-mannered. It's got that golden cage element that I will talk about, but he's not a dynamic character so much as someone who is trying to prove his own worth. His beastly behavior comes from the idea that he physically is another species. Instead of being angry and mean, he drinks like a dog. He often finds the need to hunt. These things make him far more pitiable than the Disney story, showing a Beast who is actually a jerk until Belle teaches him not to be a jerk. Now, it sounds like the Disney version has a bit more of a message to the story. Eh, I'm going to contest that pretty hard. The Beast is rewarded for his bad behavior in the Disney version. Despite the fact that he makes changes, it kind of sells the notion that a man needs to put in minimal effort and stresses that the "nice guy" thing is all a woman needs. Belle would change her feelings about him because he's nice when he used to be mean. It overshadows the abusive relationship that the Beast is full on building in the movie.
Also, the Cocteau version does a far better job establishing that Belle is a prisoner, no matter where she is. The reason Belle acclimates so well to the Beast's castle is that she's used to that kind of behavior. I don't know much about the original Beauty and the Beast story, but there's a really strong thread of Cinderella running through the Cocteau version. Belle has two evil stepsisters and a greedy brother. One of the cool themes is that Belle, and thusly, good women everywhere, are prisoners of their environments. Dad in this one, as much as he's more likable than the other members of the family, still kind of sucks. Everyone expects Belle to do everything for them. When she returns, the sisters who hate her trap her for their own selfish needs. So when Belle doesn't recognize the evil that the Beast has hoisted upon her, it's because that's what her life has always been. She's always been the prisoner of a loved one. With the case of the Beast, it's a little more literal, but it still parallels the life she had before. The Disney one kind of teased that with the song at the beginning, but it's much more understated. In the Disney version, she's trapped by the notion of a small town where things are boring. Cocteau's very oppressive home life makes the Beast's attractiveness make more sense.
But this is where I really wanted to get to: A better version of a problematic story is still a problematic story. The Beast is desperate for someone to recognize his humanity. To accomplish this, he takes a girl hostage and Stockholms her for the majority of the story. He makes her dependent on him. His logic is "If she sees that I'm a good guy, she'll have to love me." See, it's not just that he's asking to be recognized as a person. His curse is dependent on love, so he continues to ask her for her hand in marriage, knowing what the answer will be. The fact that a woman has to be convinced to love you is a really troubling message, because that's not how that should work. Belle really has no autonomy in any version of the story. She realizes that accepting her crappy scenario makes her emotionally less under duress, so she starts moving in that direction. That's not vulnerability. It's a lack of choices. She sees the world in this binary fashion: marriage or sadness. And it's only when she doesn't choose sadness that she's able to find any degree of solace. Yeah, the Beast turns into a handsome prince. That's fine. But that's a perk that she didn't know was coming. The story gives us a happy ending because that's what we want. But really, she views the Beast with love only because of what he has been compared to. The Beast is tragic, but not necessarily a love interest. He has all the power and she has none. As more relatable as the Cocteau version is, it still has major faults.
But I acknowledge the artistry of this movie. This is a movie with soul. I don't know if I needed the meta elements of the film in there, but it is a well-told story, even if the story kind of sucks.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.