Thursday, August 25, 2011
(La Belle et la Bête or Beauty and the Beast,
1946, film by Jean Cocteau, starring Josette
Day and Jean Marais)
“Once upon a time there was a merchant who was very rich. He had six children, three boys and three girls. . . . His daughters were very beautiful, but the youngest especially excited admiration. As a child she was called nothing but ‘Little Beauty,’ so that this name stuck to her.”
So begins the fairy tale that inspired one of the most beautifully rendered films of romantic fantasy. This is the version of Beauty and the Beast that a French writer, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1711-1780), published when working as a governess in London. She had taken the original tale by another French writer and revised and shortened it.
At the end of World War II, the French poet Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) took that story and wrote a film script that reduced the number of characters and subplots and tamed its darkness and violence.
He also altered the narrative in a subtle but significant way. This was to be a fairy tale for adults.
“To fairyland as people usually see it, I would bring a kind of realism to banish the vague and misty nonsense now so completely outworn,” Cocteau explained in an article at the time.
“My story would concern itself mainly with the unconscious obstinacy with which women pursue the same type of man, and expose the naïveté of the old fairy tales that would have us believe that this type reaches its ideal in conventional good looks. My aim would be to make the Beast so human, so sympathetic, so superior to men, that his transformation into Prince Charming would come as a terrible blow to Beauty, condemning her to a humdrum marriage and a future I summed up in that last sentence of all fairy tales: ‘And they had many children.’”
Because of post-war scarcities, Cocteau filmed Beauty and the Beast in black-and-white. But the lack of color transforms what would be merely a beautiful film into a masterpiece. Everything glitters so — the pearls, the diamonds, the silver, the tears. And the magical scenes, depending on mundane means rather than expensive special effects, create a different but real world entirely, one that is convincing and possible.
The excerpt below is of a poem written by Charles Lamb (1775-1834), the English essayist and writer. It recalls the original written version of the fairy tale.
from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, OR, A ROUGH OUTSIDE WITH A GENTLE HEART
And there, alas! he now was found
Extended on the flowery ground.
“Ah! fond and faithful Beast,” she cried,
“Hast thou for me perfidious died!
O! could’st thou hear my fervid prayer,
’Twould ease the anguish of despair.”
Beast open’d now his long-closed eyes,
And saw the fair with glad surprise.
“In my last moments you are sent;
You pity, and I die content.”
“Thou shalt not die,” rejoin’d the maid;
“O rather live to hate, upbraid —
But no! my grievous fault forgive;
I feel I can't without thee live.”
Beauty had scarce pronounced the word,
When magic sounds of sweet accord,
The music of celestial spheres,
As if from seraph harps she hears!
Amazed she stood, — new wonders grew;
For Beast now vanish’d from her view;
And, lo! a prince, with every grace
Of figure, fashion, feature, face,
In whom all charms of Nature meet,
Was kneeling at fair Beauty’s feet.
“But where is Beast?” still Beauty cried:
“Behold him here,” the prince replied.