What is there to say: Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) is one of the best films ever made, everything that cinema should aspire to be. It is probably Cocteau’s best-known film, and creates a magical atmosphere. It follows the basic fairytale story as popularised by author Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Belle agrees to take her father’s place when he is sentenced to death for stealing a flower from the Beast’s garden. The Beast falls in love with her, and sets her free in hopes that she will return voluntarily.
It’s a much darker tale than the Disney version, as fairy tales usually are. In fact, when Walt Disney saw Cocteau’s version, he put the studio’s plans on hold (they were of course revived many decades later).
Jean Marais, who also played the lead in Orphée and was Cocteau’s on-and-off lover over the years, plays the Beast; Josette Day plays Belle. Day retired from acting quite young in order to marry a wealthy businessman. The actors provide the right characteristics for their roles in this definitive version. Marais’s Beast was beautifully designed, some of the best post-German Expressionist/Universal Monsters era film makeup before the heyday of special-effects makeup in the 1980s. The beast is considerably more menacing and predatory than the Disneyfied version, Ron Perlman clearly took inspiration from Cocteau’s version when playing the role in the ’80s TV series.
The result is a beautifully retold version of the tale, shot by Henri Alekan, who also shot Wings of Desire many years later—Wenders said his work on La Belle et la Bête was the main reason he was hired, as clearly knows how to create a magical realist romance. Alekan and Cocteau constantly butted heads over the look of the film, but the cinematographer eventually came around to Cocteau’s vision. Alekan wanted more soft focus, while Cocteau wanted a more modern look that would ground the film a bit more in reality. All of this of course dissolves in the end.
It’s probably the greatest film to be based on a classic (rather than invented for the screen) fairy tale. It’s suitable for all ages, although very young children may find the Beast a bit too scary at first. Just watch if you’ve never seen and rewatch it if you have —it’s a perfect movie.
BFI have upgraded their old DVD offering with a 4K restoration from 2013 (not the same transfer as Criterion’s 2011 disc). The film includes a commentary track by author Sir Christopher Frayling from the Criterion release, a good-sized documentary on the film, another featurette, some deleted scenes, a short film, the original trailer and a BFI trailer, plus a big booklet.