17 February 2009
Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast an Example of the Enduring Power of Great Art
Good literature seeks not to destroy but to create. It is as a paintbrush on a blank canvas not as a weapon to cause harm. Good literature elucidates and informs. Bringing understanding and clarity and shedding light on the human condition. A good writer creates in the pursuit of truth. Thus the writer should be pure of intent, seeking to cast a light on dark places or share a new perspective on familiar ones.
The best films aspire to the same ideal. A great filmmaker is not just telling a story but using the camera as a writer uses words to allow us to experience that story. The intellectual inspiration that comes from viewing great cinema derives from the experience of seeing the familiar in a new light and thus challenging how we understand it.
Great writers and filmmakers help broaden our vision and understanding of the world. They accomplish this not as much by what they tell us but how they tell us. The choice of words, like camera perspectives, are as critical as the message conveyed, indeed, they are part of that message.
Good literature is honest. Which is to say it conveys the sincere belief of the artist. The truth. This is distinguished from that which is designed to sell books or movie tickets. It is, of course, possible to make money in the pursuit of art. Example from film are abundant. Fellini, Truffaut, Kurosawa, Hitchcock and Hawks did not exactly die paupers.
I was reminded of all this high falutin talk the other day when I finally watched Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946). The film is based on a familiar fairy tale of a beautiful maiden who is imprisoned by a grotesque man/creature in an enchanted castle. To recent generations this story is best known as an animated Disney film, replete with songs. This version subsequently made its way to Broadway and the Ice Capades. Available on DVD, the 1991 version of The Beauty and the Beast will entertain and delight the kiddies (it did mine).
Cocteau was a bit more faithful to the original story penned by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in the 18th century. But more than the original author, Cocteau was faithful to his own muse in creating a wondrous experience that should serve as final proof to anyone who doubts that black and white can be every bit as beautiful a film medium as color (in fact, I'd argue glorious black and white is prettier).
Cocteau was a true renaissance artist. Film direction was just one of his avocations along with playwriting, poetry, designing, prose and...get this, managing boxers. Cocteau was brave enough to be open about his homosexuality and one of the costars of Beauty and the Beast, Jean Marais, was his long time lover.
Elevating a fairy tale to cinematic art is not in and of itself a difficult task. Fairy tales are often well constructed stories with strong moral underpinnings that by their very nature seek to comment on an aspect of the human condition. Fairy tales tend to focus on questions of good versus evil and often deal with the issue of choice. Perfect fodder for the screen.
In this film Cocteau uses all manner of cinematic slight of hand to create a magical castle and its occupants. This is special effects gadgetry in the service of story telling. Too often in modern cinema special effects are the tail that wags the dog. Not so in Cocteau’s film. Candle holders that are human hands, statues that are alive with eyes that follow the characters are just part of the show. As Roger Ebert wrote, “The Beast's dwelling is one of the strangest ever put on film--Xanadu crossed with Dali.” This is using special effect to tell the story, not be it.
Before watching the film I’d feared that the Beast’s make up would look amateurish; this shows two things: one that I can be still be dead wrong, and two, that I am not immune to some of the conceits of the modern film aficionado. The beast looks like quite convincing and beneath the make up, Marais powerfully conveys the soul of a tortured creature.
Josette Day as the beauty, Belle (a word that means beauty in French) is the picture of sweet innocence but stays this side of cloying. She benefits from Cocteau’s camera work, never more so than upon first entering the castle. We see her in slow motion than seeming to float just above the ground.
The evil sisters, a fairy tale staple, are here, used more as props than people. (Their story can be for another time). The nature of beauty and trust and love are the central characters, and they are fully drawn by Cocteau’s brush.
Cocteau was re-telling a classic fairy tale. True to the central tenets of the story but passionately making it his own. This is a great film that I’d foolishly avoided for decades because I assumed it to be dated and trite. Far from it. This is what art is suppose to be. while the story is not original, the interpretation of it is. Jean Cocteau’s The Beauty and The Beast is jaw droppingly beautiful art that enables the intellect and inspires the viewer.
More examples of such films to come.