Thursday, 14 October 2010

La Belle et la bête by Jean Cocteau

When Jean Cocteau went to make films he took with him the traditions and methods of the theatre of his time. This is best seen in his film La Belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast). The film, while inexplicably overlooked by modern audiences, has been very influential in film making since it's release in 1946.

Many film makers have copied, sorry, included an homage in their films of the imagery to be seen in La Belle et la bête. The strongest imitator has been the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, so much so that film historian Sir Christopher Frayling was expecting a note of credit at the end of the Disney film - but there was none to be seen.

All sorts of film genres have imitated, sorry, paid homage to Cocteau's imagery in this film. Even horrors films have perhaps over exploited, sorry, paid homage to one particular scene from La Belle et la bête. It the part of the film when Belle has arrived at Bête's house. Her arrival and exploration of the house is laden with visual beauty and mystery. One shot is the very scene that Cocteau presented to the film backer as a drawing and based that drawing alone Cocteau received the money to make the film. Belle is moving down a corridor lined with doors and light gossamer like curtains which billow in a breeze.
Below is a picture from the film Dracula 2000 with the leading lady in a similar corridor. You may have seen many other moments like this in other horror films.

Putting aside the topic of paying homage to the imagery of Cocteau, the film has moments that owe a debt of gratitude (as do all film makers) to the theatrical and cinematic technical innovations of George Méliès - whom Cocteau was familiar with because of his theatre work. Cocteau seems to have relished the use of these and ingeniously created his own to work along side them. By modern special effect standards the film appears to show it's age and yet it is that quality that now, as Sir Christopher Frayling states in his commentary, makes the film even more fairy tale like or myth like in it's look. Some of what Cocteau did could be reproduced now in a modern theatre stage version of La Belle et la bête without any change to the methods. Other things, such as moments of graceful slow motion done by using high speed cameras, firmly lock the film into being a cinematic experience.

The tentative connection to George Méliès and the theatre methods used in the film make the film of interest to those interested in the history of magic and it's influences.

One last point is something I noticed entirely by chance. The actor playing Ludovic, Belle's brother, is a doppelganger for art critic Andrew Graham Dixon.

 [Copyright of the photographs belongs to the film makers and the BBC.]

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