The newly restored print of Jean Cocteauís 1946 Beauty and the Beast illumines one of the most gorgeous black-and-white films ever made. Itís also one of the great fairy-tale movies. Josette Day, with her porcelain complexion, plays the pure-hearted maiden who offers herself to the Beast (played by Cocteauís lover, the implausibly handsome Jean Marais) in barter for the life of her luckless father (Marcel André) after the Beast catches him stealing a rose from his garden. (All three of these actors also appear in Les parents terribles, which Cocteau directed in 1949 ó the same year he released his Orpheus, with Marais in the title role. This is a trio of masterpieces.)
In Cocteauís version of the story, Beauty travels from the faded mannerist grandeur of her merchant fatherís house ó where her selfish, vindictive sisters (Mila Parély and Nan Germon) have to shoo the chickens out of their palanquins and rouse their drunken footmen before they can pay a call on some titled local ó to the Beastís High Gothic castle, where the statues have live faces and disembodied hands sprout from the table to pour flagons of wine for his guests. The Beast explains to Beauty, who begins as his prisoner and becomes his adored friend, that when itís night on his estate, itís daytime at her family home, and Cocteau contrasts the two worlds of the movie in every significant way. Beauty, at the bidding of the Beast, takes on the role of mistress of his castle, dressed in regal gowns and jewels, while at home sheís treated as a servant. The absurd aristocratic pretensions of her sisters (whose feathery hats are like punch lines to some implied joke at their expense) are juxtaposed with the genuine magnificence of the Beastís lands, the fatherís poverty with the Beastís infinite enchanted riches, the barnyard animals with the deer that race through his forests (and that he hunts for food, emerging from the carnage with smoking paws). The sistersí fake, onion-drawn tears, which they present to Beauty to manipulate her, are contrasted with the Beastís broken heart when he believes she has deserted him. The pearl necklace, a gift from the Beast, shrivels when she offers it out of kindness to one of her sisters, who have shriveled souls. Even the Beast himself has a counterpoint: Avenant (also played by Marais), Beautyís suitor and the friend of her brother (Michel Auclair), whose love for her is marred by his ignoble actions.
The legendary Henri Alekan photographed; Christian Bérard designed the production (with Lucien Carré), the costumes (with Antonio Castillo and Marcel Escoffier), and the Beastís make-up. In a collar like a ruff, with a magnificent catís face like Bert Lahrís as the Cowardly Lion, Marais looks astonishing, and he speaks in a hoarse purr. From the back he suggests a vampire, with stiff, arched, cloaked shoulders, and his walk is a stealthy, precise stalk, yet heís part human ó he treats Beauty with courtly graciousness, and he feels shame and remorse for the carnivorous nature he canít help. Like Beauty, he loves roses more than anything in the world; this is a link between them. Sheís his ideal. He tells her not to look in his eyes, and though he doesnít say why, you sense itís because she might see his longing for her, his aching loneliness and desire, his vulnerability. The movie is full of mirrors, most important the magic, all-seeing one he gives her, and his eyes, too, are a mirror. Beauty says that some menís ugliness is inside them, but his is on the exterior; the soul he protests he possesses is reflected in those eyes, and until she can perceive it, she will continue to refuse the proposal of marriage he makes her every night.
The movie is full of wondrous images, like the Beastís drinking water out of Beautyís hands, and the way his ears literally perk up when he hears the delicate footfall of a deer in the distance, and the first image of the enchanted horse, the Magnificent, with its tinseled mane. Take a child to see this film and he or she will remember it forever.