beauty and the beast (1946): the cost of growing up

It’s hard to imagine that Google directed you here because you were looking for an article about Jean Cocteau’s 1946 live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, rather than the Beauty and the Beast with animated dancing teapots or even the Beauty and the Beast TV series featuring romance-novel Hellboy. But Cocteau’s masterpiece is what this post is about, so, sad to report, if you were hoping to hear about candlesticks voiced by Jerry Orbach, you’re out of luck.

Jerry Orbach

That said, Cocteau’s take on the classic story still feels fantastical, even at a remove of nearly 70 years. For whatever reason, I find it somehow gratifying to find that a film from just after the Second World War could use practical effects to evoke magic so … magically … and without the raw power of CGI. This occurred to me in an early scene, when Belle’s father stumbles into the front hall of the Beast’s enchanted manor. The candelabras lining the walls are held up by human hands and arms, and as he walks forward, the candles suddenly light and the arms extend in turn, evidently living but also doing a perfect imitation of an unliving mechanical process. A moment later, a disembodied hand in the table pours Pops a drink while the eyes of statues follow him around the room. This is typical of the Beast’s residence, which seethes with animation, and not of the cartoon sort.

Then there’s the Beast himself. The movie simply wouldn’t work if Cocteau’s Beast looked silly, so it’s sort of a relief to see that the make-up is first-rate, even unbelievably good; the fabulous prosthetic wall of hair that is the Beast’s face still looks convincing, even from a post-Avatar perspective. No artifice is evident as the credible fur gives way to two lively — two human — eyes. The Beast is at once both man and wolf.

The monster and his estate share more than mere magic. They both straddle categorical distinctions and play around the hard boundaries we use to conceptualize the world. The house, for its part, is at the same time living yet inanimate, and its liveliness has the odd effect of making it seem as though Belle and the Beast are never alone, even though they always are. The magic of the manor confuses the difference we normally make between the inert and the animate.

The Beast himself pulls off a similar trick, inhabiting some middle ground, piercing categorical barriers that we’d probably prefer stayed rigid: He’s undoubtedly human but also clearly animal. There is a reason so much that is disturbing is also fascinating — it’s because to have these categories challenged is mysterious and dangerous. A man that is also a beast is a fundamental challenge to our intuitions, both intriguing and repelling us.
15-02-13 arms_holding candles
Even with these elements, there’s still a risk in undertaking a Beauty and the Beast adaptation that it might be too much of a fairy tale to be of interest to adults or too rooted in the exotic to be anything more than pleasant fantasy.

Neither is true. Cocteau’s version of Belle doesn’t take much notice of the absurdity of her imprisonment at the estate of a lord who whose appurtenances include a glove of teleportation, an all-seeing mirror, and a horse version of the Google car. It’s really better that little-to-no time is spent reconciling the sorcery with anything we know of real life, because it means that Belle and Beast quickly settle into a dynamic that you can relate to as an adult: She chides him, he acts alternately abashed and obsessive, and they come across more like a man and woman caught in a fraught marriage than the objective reality, which is that she is being held hostage in the castle of a talking dog whose outfits are like Louis XIV‘s “active lifestyle” line.

Moreover, Belle is much more than a pretty face in this telling of the story, even though her very name more or less means “Pretty Face.” It turns out that Belle has her own sort of problems, apart from being trapped with the Beast. Before her consignment, we see her rejecting the proposal of Avenant, a handsome suitor, out of exceeding devotion to her father, a devotion that will later drive her into the hands of the Beast in place of her father. Using this devotion as an excuse, Belle is able to put off the frightening world of adult romance and sexuality, even though, she admits later, she was indeed in love with Avenant.

The importance of this theme, i.e., Belle’s movement from reluctance to embrace of an adult role, becomes obvious when the Beast is finally returned to his human form and we the audience realize that the actor whose sad eyes gave a soul to the Beast is the self-same man who’s been playing Avenant. With this reveal, the (now) Prince even asks Belle if his looking exactly like that other fellow is going to be a problem, though, strangely, he doesn’t explain what is ultimately a real mind-screw of a “coincidence.” In any event, it’s clear that Cocteau indeed wants to draw some connection, if an ill-defined one, between the Beast, the Prince, and Avenant the suitor.

As such, you could watch this movie as a coming-of-age tale: Belle, afraid of adult love, finally grows up through her relationship with the Beast, who is transformed into a viable lover in the end. With Belle finally taking on the mantle of adulthood, the movie ends happily. (Let’s forget for a moment that this suggests a logic something along the lines of, “If only I just love him enough, I can fix him.”)

And yet I can’t help but see some holes with the cheerful resolution of this ending, holes I can only think Cocteau purposely put into the fabric of the story. First, there’s the mode by which Belle grows up. Belle grows not by escaping the Beast and throwing herself back in the arms of Avenant, but by the opposite: She embraces adult love through the personage of the Beast, who is literally the lord of a magical estate. Even transformed back to his humanity, the Prince has magic powers of flight. The Beast and even his human incarnation, the Prince, don’t represent reality; they represent fantasy. But it’s with Beast-Prince that Belle finally abandons her childishness. What’s that about?

And, too, the movie delivers another twist in the ending that complicates the nature of Belle’s ascension into maturity. At the end of the movie, Avenant attempts to loot the Beast’s riches by breaking into Diana’s Pavilion, where the furry guy’s wealth is kept. Avenant, mounted on the roof of the Pavilion, espies piles of treasure through the roof of glass. He shatters a pane and begins to lower himself in. As he does, he’s shot in the back with an arrow by a living statue of Diana. Struck, he turns into the Beast and falls to the ground, possibly dead.

At the same moment, Belle is attending to the Beast, who’s near death because she broke a promise to stay near. But now he becomes the Prince, aka the actor who plays poor Avenant, thanks, it would seem, both to Belle’s loving look, but also Avenant’s recent fall from grace. The new lovers prepare to begin their life together, but a cut back to the floor of the treasure room shows Avenant, now as the Beast, lying there lifelessly.

(In fact, it’s unclear to me that whether the Avenant Beast is actually dead, because why would he be shown turning into the Beast if he dies a moment later? It’s not much of a curse if he’s not alive to be suffer it.)

This sequence suggests that for Belle to become a fully realized adult, her former suitor needs to die and/or become the a version of the damned beast she’s rescuing. It’s a strange note in what would seem like a very up ending to the movie, and anyway it’s not clear to me what it means that Avenant dies in the process of her embracing womanhood. I do know I’m intrigued and enchanted by this film, as old as it is, and that is at least another kind of sorcery, possibly more potent.

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