Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Jean Cocteau’s ‘La Belle et la Bête’ (1946)

A retelling of the classic story ‘Beauty and the Beast’, Cocteau tells the story of Belle, a young woman trapped in the magical castle of a prince transformed into a monster. The story’s most obvious theme is that of not judging books by their covers, but there may be others lying underneath, perhaps not all considered consciously by the creators.

Fig. 1. Belle and the Beast still.

Belle comes to develop sympathy and even pity for the Beast, likely due to his chivalric nature that is clearly in conflict with the instincts of a predator. However, from a 21st century perspective it could be argued that Belle is showing signs of Stockholm syndrome, a condition in which the victim of a kidnapping becomes emotionally dependent on their kidnapper. While indeed the Beast is deserving of sympathy, and provided Belle with riches beyond her wildest dreams, he still locked her in a gilded cage and engaged in emotional blackmail when he said that he would die of grief if she did not return.

However, it must be remembered that in 1946 such behaviour was considered romantic rather than manipulative. At the time the Beast’s devotion was the height of chivalry, and was used, like in the Fly movies, to contrast with his monstrous appearance. His struggle with his animal side is a noble and courageous one, especially as he does it solely to protect Belle from himself.

Fig. 2. Belle still.

One could argue that the Beast’s transformation into a handsome prince ‘removes an essential element from the Beast’ (Cannon, 1997). What made the story so charming was Belle’s love of the monster – transforming him back as a ‘reward’ seems to cheapen Belle’s love.  While it is clearly stating that kindness will be rewarded, giving Belle a handsome lover as a reward when the film went to great pains to show that physical attractiveness did not matter seems somewhat hypocritical.

Made in the wake of World War II, the film provided France something it desperately needed – ‘pure escapism, blessed relief from the painful memories of the Occupation and the penury of post-war austerity’ (Travers, 2001). The film is visually surreal, with actors incorporated into furniture, candlelight carefully thrown onto billowing curtains and a conscious and bizarre interplay of light and shadow. The film’s being in black-and-white serves it well, as colour would only interfere with the contrasts between light and dark. However, ultimately the film does not rely ‘on astonishing special effects but on the private thoughts of the watcher’ (Malcolm, 1999) to make its impact – the visuals serve only to transport the viewer into the magical world of the Beast’s castle, rather than act as the be-all and end-all of the film.

Fig. 3. Candelabra still.

Illustration List
Figure 1. Cocteau, Jean. (1946) Belle and the Beast still. At: http://stuartfernie.org/belleetbete4.jpg (Accessed on 27/09/11)
Figure 2. Cocteau, Jean. (1946) Belle still. At: http://wondersinthedark.files.wordpress.com/2008/12/belle-et-la-bete-1-copy.jpg?w=500&h=375 (Accessed on 27/09/11)
Figure 3. Cocteau, Jean. (1946) Candelabra still. At: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_TRju1TnYfxU/TKcGLDLS7_I/AAAAAAAAAE8/G9NejGblPKw/s1600/La+belle+et+la+bete+film+stills.jpeg (Accessed on 27/09/11)

Cannon, D. (1997) Movie Reviews UK. http://www.film.u-net.com/Movies/Reviews/Belle_Bete.html (Accessed on 27/09/11)
Travers, J. (2000) Films de France. http://filmsdefrance.com/FDF_La_belle_et_la_bete_rev.html (Accessed on 27/09/11)
Malcolm, D. (1999) The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/1999/jul/01/1 (Accessed on 27/09/11)

1 comment:

  1. *However, from a 21st century perspective it could be argued that Belle is showing signs of Stockholm syndrome, a condition in which the victim of a kidnapping becomes emotionally dependent on their kidnapper.*

    I love this idea - so, well, so unromantic! Beauty & the Beast as hostage psycho-drama - nice! There's probably a thesis in that somewhere... ;)