#185. Beauty and the Beast (1946)

I didn’t know there’d ever been a Beauty and the Beast before the Disney version – and, having been so surprised to learn that Snow White came out as early as 1939, I figured, when I saw this title on the List, that it was the Disney version. But no. That one came out in the ‘90s.

FilmStruck had among its special features a quick interview with Guillermo Del Toro (who at the time that I saw the movie was in the press for his girl-on-monster love story, The Shape of Water) who talks, mostly, about the beauty of the monster’s suit – which really is remarkable: it’s massive and convincing, very pretty, and also looks miserably uncomfortable for Jean Marais, our hero who gets to shed all the fur and the glue at the end to show us how handsome he is and who went on to collaborate with director Jean Cocteau in what seems like a classic director-and-muse relationship: Hitchcock and Cary Grant, Scorsese and Robert De Niro, the Johns Ford & Wayne.

I didn’t know anything about Cocteau when I sat down with this except that his name comes up in The Pest, a movie I watched a million times as a kid and whose dialogue I can still lip-sync when it come sup on TV. There’s a menacing gay character who tells Leguizamo’s character that his pet snake is named Cocteau. Leguizamo says, “After the French playwright?”

“Nein,” says the man, “after my two favorite body parts.”

Anyway. I’m looking into his filmography, trying to get a better perspective on the movie, and I find that the filmography sits beside his bibliography (novels and books of poetry alongside the stage- and screenplays) and that apart from those two lists, scattered with influential titles, there’s a record of his artwork and his various credits in stage productions, film productions – he was, like Orson Welles, an all-aroundsman. Did way more shit in his 74 years than would seem possible. He was politically conscious and appears to’ve said some sketchily sympathetic shit about Hitler and to’ve rustled some feathers with some of the homoerotic imagery and themes in his work. Dude got around. He was productive.

I was listening to an interview with Kevin Smith recently where he said that one of the lessons he learned from Jersey Girl, his total flop of a romantic comedy that he thought was gonna be his ticket into mainstream filmmaking (it was and it wasn’t; I wrote more about it here), that it’s good to have lots of creative projects running alongside each other. Because what happened with Jersey Girl is he spent so many weeks writing it, then so many months in pre-production, shooting, post-production, publicity – and then, suddenly, the movie’s out in theaters. It’s in the hands of audiences and critics. Takes two weeks for the movie to be seen, written up, discarded…and then what? There’s this vacuum in your life where, for the past year, there’s been an all-consuming creative project. (I did another bit of ruminating on Kevin Smith in yesterday’s personal post.)

This is the kinda life I think I wanna lead. Something like what Smith’s doing now, what Miller and Welles did, and Cocteau. Just create shit, don’t stop, don’t think too hard. (One of the anxieties I have about that kinda lifestyle, though, is that the artist is according so little attention to each individual project that they seldom achieve anything you’d call a total realization of their vision – or that, if they do accomplish such things, they’re few and far between. Look at Woody Allen’s career, for example, and note the number of good movies to bad ones. It’s probably one to three. But, as Fran Lebowitz says in that Scorsese documentary, it’s obnoxious to criticize somebody as being a one-hit wonder. Cuz one is a lot.)

With Beauty and the Beast, one of eleven films to his credit, Cocteau introduces the avante-garde to French filmmaking, according to this essay on the Criterion collection’s website – which is a description that still kinda intimidates me, cuz “avante-garde” tends to describe things I don’t understand, but Beauty and the Beast, for all of its poetry and atmosphere and unexplained imagery, is totally accessible and friendly and, while it’s rightly distinguished by some people as the “adult” version, it’s not because of any vulgarity or high ideas. It’s a fairy tale about a young woman, Belle (Josette Day), who goes to live in this fantastical castle with the eponymous beast in order to spare her father’s life (the old man stumbled through the beast’s property and tried to pluck a rose).

There are bare arms lining the hallway, holding up candelabra that lights itself, and just about everything on the dinner table seems sentient, the door knockers too – it seems, in a sense, like what the world probably looks like to an artist so urgently prolific as Cocteau: everything has a story, a nuance, a mood. An essence that needs to be captured.

The beast wants to marry Belle but she dodges the offer and lives there in quiet misery. The beast sees this and lets her go home for a few days, chauffeured by his horse Magnificent, and there – as does happen in fairy tales – her duplicitous and greedy older sisters try to fuck shit up for her. Mainstream reenactments of fairy tales tend to end on a happy note but the source material is usually pretty horrific and, since this does seem to be targeted more at an adult than child audience, I was braced for something horrible to happen.

But nope. All’s peachy at the end.

And I liked it just fine. Not crazy about it. I was really interested in the visuals, and feel that the whole thing is a testament to Cocteau’s incredible imagination and craftsmanship as both a filmmaker and storyteller, but I think that, if I walk away from Beauty and the Beast with a radical appreciation for anything, it’ll end up being Cocteau’s work itself, which I kinda wanna explore now.

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