Classics: La Belle et la Bête: Beauty and the Beast (1946) Reviewed

As the song proclaims, Beauty and the Beast is a “tale as old at time.” Well, almost. 

The fairy tale La Belle et la Bête was written by French author Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740. In an era where women were rarely given credit for their artistic accomplishments, de Villeneuve’s story of an independent and head strong woman was centuries ahead of its time. Since its first publication, Beauty and the Beast has been rewritten and abridged by a number of authors, and has been a mainstay in classic fairy tale collections. 

While today’s incarnation differs compared to de Villeneuve’s original story, the relationship of Belle and the Beast has been a constant theme that has seen little alteration since its first publication. This well loved tale was first adapted for film in 1946, and was directed by French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. The movie is an adaptation of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 1757 variation of the tale, and is a classic example of early French cinema.

La Belle et la Bête is a fantastical marvel considering the limited special effects available at the time. Many of the effects were created just for the purpose of making this film. Inventive camera techniques and illusions created a memorable dreamlike setting to this film, and the classic focus on love and romance is told with an affection that has long been revered in French cinema, and the country as a whole. 

Like many films made during the early days of cinema, there is a charming quality considering the innovative efforts used to bring this fantasy tale to life. The imaginative process was no easy take, and the primitive but effective techniques used still hold up today. Cocteau’s reason for adapting Bête for film reflected a patriotic pride for his country, which had recently lost much to the horrors of WWII. Cocteau wanted to make something magical, uplifting, and poetic. Actress Josette Day stars as Belle, and beloved French actor Jean Marais portrays the Beast. Marias spent five hours in make-up every morning to transform into the tragic character, and special fangs were made and adhered to his teeth. The make up and teeth limited the actors facial mobility, and he was only able to eat mushed and softened food during lunch. In addition to playing the Beast/ Prince, Marias also portrays the character Avenant, the original village suitor who seeks Belle’s hand in marriage. The character would later serve as inspiration for Gaston, who first appeared in Disney’s 1991 animated film.

Bête slightly differs in comparison to Disney’s adaptations. Most notable is the inclusion of Belle’s sisters and brother, which closely resembles de Villeneuve’s original tale. Fans of Disney’s new live action film should appreciate Cocteau’s original vision. The metaphoric story is full of visually magical moments, which was new territory in film at the time of its release. Overall it was the cast and crew’s labor of love to create something unique that brought this tale to life. Cocteau’s focus on creating a visual poem gave the film a classical presentation. This is where the advance storytelling of early French cinema is best represented. There is a more romanticized element to Bête compared to its later adapted counterparts, and this allows the relationship between Belle and the Beast to blossom with a deeper admiration. Now considered a classic, Cocteau’s beautiful film laid the foundation for future adaptations of this timeless tale. Bête was restored in 1995 and the Criterion Collection released the film on DVD in 2003 with several special features and improved English subtitles. A blu-ray was released in 2011 with additional features and production commentaries. 

Lee L. Lind