Beauty and the Beast: A Tale for the Ages


In 1946, Jean Cocteau filmed La Belle et la bête in France. Cocteau, 1889 to 1903, was a Renaissance man who worked in almost every genre of artistic expression: he was a poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist, film writer, director, painter, and sculptor. Best known as a writer, he associated with many of the most creative people of his time. Particularly important for our discussion, he often adapted myths and legends in his work. His screenplay was based on the old Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont fairy tale. His work can be identified by his use of surrealism, which tried to find a reality above the surface or within the surface of what the reader or film-goer is seeing. Cocteau and other surrealists tried to suspend the discipline of conscious or logical reason, aesthetics, or morality in order to allow for the expression of subconscious thought and feeling” (Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Third Edition.)

The terms “Fairy Tale” and “Folk Tale” are often confused. As defined in The Harper Handbook to Literature, Second Edition, a fairy tale is written or created, “a story of dire trials and rescue by witches, ogres, fairies, and other magical beings.” The Folk Story, on the other hand, was an oral folk story forming part of the folklore of a community, generally less serious than the stores called myths. In preliterate societies, virtually all narratives were either myths or folktales: oral histories of real wars, kings, heroes, great families, and the like accumulating large amounts of legendary material.”

Roger Ebert, the late film critic, said of Cocteau’s film of the fairy tale that “It is the most magical of all films. . . alive with trick shots and astonishing effects, giving us a Beast who is lonely like a man and is misunderstood as an animal.” The tone of the film, and the film is very surrealistic, is “established in haunting images, and bold Freudian images to suggest emotions in the subconscious of his characters.” The Beast’s castle is a strange, confusing place. When I watched some of the film recently, my impression of the castle is that of a dream (or a nightmare.) The heroine, Beauty, wanders through it haphazardly, sheer draperies blowing out, muscular arms without bodies holding lighting fixtures, the Beast appearing and disappearing, statues that are alive, and music, sometimes dissonant and moody, accompanying what is playing on the screen.

If you would like to read Ebert’s review of December 26, 1999, “Beauty and the Beast,” you will learn more about the surrealistic touches in the film, and then if you want to enter Cocteau’s dream world, you’ll be prepared. Ebert remarks that “Cocteau wanted to make a poem, wanted to appeal through images rather than words…” Although the story of Beauty and the Beast was old and familiar, “its surface seems to be masking deeper and more disturbing currents.” This is obviously one version of the story not meant for children.


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