Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête; Jean Cocteau 1946) is a story that everyone knows, or presumes they know. Unlike Disney’s bawdy color cartoon version, Cocteau is not interested in justifying characters actions or explaining the peculiar fairy tale magic that occurs on and off. Cocteau’s characters drift through the film under a strange magnetism, things go unexplained simply because they are, making every frame of the work pure and utter poetry, and probably the closest and most accurate interpretation of a fairy tale ever put to the screen.
Cocteau understands that this is a film ruled by dream logic and actions hard to understand if encountered in real life or time. He decidedly sooths the audience with an extradiegetic device at the beginning of the film, a disclaimer written by Cocteau himself, explaining that to watch this film requires a bit of child like simplicity, and to take in “Childhood’s secret open sesame, “Once Upon a Time….”
The exposition of the film is a stunning one. The film begins with an arrow being shot by two men, missing a target and going through the window, almost killing an incredibly yappy and fruffy dog, owned by non other than two very fruffy looking sisters who instantly begin arguing with the two boys, one of them being their brother. We instantly understand that we are being introduced to a very dysfunctional household with a great deal of problems. In a few moments, we see a bedraggled but beautiful looking girl cleaning the floor, our protagonist no less. Of course, any reader of fairy tales can instantly recognize that this is the beautiful sister who is punished for being just that by her wicked sisters ala Cinderella. “Even the floor longs to be your mirror!” exclaims Avenant, an obvious love interest from the start as he stares at her longingly. He quickly asks for her hand in marriage but she refuses, for she wants to stand by her family and take care of her father. Her brother comes onto the scene and a fistfight ensues. Here we instantly understand an important aspect of the narrative and the main character (Belles) inner conflict and the main obstacle she will face through out. Will she choose love over family, or to choose family over love? Its no surprise that Jean Marais plays both Avenant and the Beast, mirroring Belle’s own confusion about what love truly means.
Of course, cause and effect is shown in its simplest form throughout. When Belles father is convinced his ships are returning and filled with cargo, he asks his daughters what they want, Belle wistfully asks for a rose. When the father chances on a magical castle on a stormy night, in effect, he plucks the rose and angers the beast, which in return wants one of his daughters or the father’s life. It’s really no surprise that Beauty and the Beast operates under a traditional three-act structure, considering its origins are from the most traditional of fairy tales. Cocteau had a strong background in theatre and this film is rampant with dramatic, symbolic shifts into one act after another with utter theatricality. The first act ends when Belle decides to sacrifice herself over to the Beast in exchange of keeping her father alive, even though he forbids it. Once Belle whispers in the magic horses ear, “Magnifique, go where I am going, go! Go! Go!” We shuttle into the second act, where she becomes the love interest of a shy and sensitive beast, which asks her again and again “Will You marry me?” Where she wistfully replies, “No, my Beast.” Here in this second act we grow to understand that the beast is not savage but hugely misunderstood, and we grow to comprehend his strange and magical castle, a reflection of his own tormented soul and Belle’s uncertain feelings of love. Eventually, Belle begs to visit her family one last time. The beast makes her promise to visit for only three days. We are instantly shuttled into the second act of the film when Belle puts on a magic glove and is transported to her own home. Though we clearly understand our heroes and villains within a first act, they carry out their actions within the second. The sisters plot and cheat to steal Belle’s magic key and Avenant and Ludovic plot to murder the beast. Much conflict ensues and Belle realizes she has broken her promise to the Beast and frantically returns to the castle, where Avenant and Ludovic try to break into a magic pavilion, where they are trapped and immediately cursed, shifting us into the third act where we see Ludovic transformed into the face of the beast. Belle finds the beast with the face of Ludovic, who is an enchanted prince no less and they live happily ever after.
Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is a peculiar example in the idea that a film can contain much surrealism and poetic visuals while still withholding an incredibly traditional three-act structure.