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beauty and the beast (jean cocteau, 1946)

I had mixed memories about this fantasy classic. I have never thought of myself as a Cocteau aficionado ... I tend to prefer more concrete narratives, if nothing else. I may have confused this with The Blood of a Poet, which is far more surreal. I had given Beauty and the Beast 7/10 at some point in the past, which I don’t recall. The point is, I wasn’t in the best frame for enjoying the movie.

Happily, my concerns were unfounded. The film begins with a brief prologue inviting us to approach the film as a child would. “I ask of you a little of this childlike simplicity, and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood's open sesame: ‘Once upon a time...’”. For whatever reason, I was able to pull a little of that childlike simplicity into my viewing, and it is an effective summons that allows an adult to experience this magical film on something resembling its own terms. It works because the magic world of The Beast is created out of technically simple but artistically profound elements. It isn’t just adults calling upon their childlike selves that can love the movie ... children as well are captivated by it.

Kids can latch onto the simplest aspects of the premise: the lowly sister who becomes a princess, the beast who loves on the inside, the magic that takes place whenever we are in The Beast’s realm. But the film is simultaneously for adults, who are entranced by the interplay between Beast and Belle. The Beast is outwardly monstrous, and at first he seems intent on verifying our first perception of him. Belle is virginal and giving, and at first she sees only the monster in The Beast. But she gradually sees what is inside The Beast. And, more importantly, she never gives in to who she is. Beauty and the Beast is not the story of a woman controlled by a man/beast. Belle is a living, breathing human character, who always tries to be the best person possible. She will act for others ... her plight comes because she wants to help her father ... but she makes her own decisions, with a clarity of mind that is impressive.

There is so much going on in Beauty and the Beast. The real world and the “beast” world look and feel different in surprisingly subtle ways. Jean Marais shows his personality in all his roles, making the connection between rogue and beast long before he turns into a prince. Josette Day blooms when wearing the gown The Beast gives her, but she maintains her individuality throughout. Everything, including the Beast World, is just close enough to reality to seem both familiar and magical.

Between the fairly standard narrative and the way magic is always close to reality, Beauty and the Beast connects with me in ways Blood of a Poet does not. I’m glad I re-evaluated this classic. #250 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

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