Jean Cocteau directed La Belle et la Bete (Beauty and the Beast) in 1945. The film, claimed by some to be his best, takes the traditional children's story and gives it a decidedly adult viewpoint. As in the traditional story, the key roles are Beauty, her father, the beast, Beauty's suitor, Avenant and later the Prince. Cocteau also includes Beauty's brother and her two sisters.
In this story, the family is rather disfunctional. The father is a businessman who is waiting for a shipment of goods to arrive by boat. The family's future is resting on the shipment. In the beginning of the film, Beauty is seen serving the family. She does all the cooking and cleaning while the rest of the family goes about its business of leisure. Avenant expresses concern that Beauty should not be serving her family and asks her to marry him. She refuses. Beauty's brother then enters and a fight begins between the two men.
In the next scene, the father leaves the family to greet one of the ships. As he leaves, he asks each of the three daughters what gifts they want when he receives his profits from the shipment. The two sisters demand clothes, jewelry, and pets. However, Beauty replies that she simply desires a single rose. In town, the father discovers that the creditors have absconded with his profits and no money remained. The disappointed father wonders what he will tell the family.
During his return home, he gets lost in the woods and stumbles upon a castle. The castle appears enchanted. As he walks through the door, candelabra light revealing that the candle holders are human arms and hands. Following a series of candelabra extended down a hallway, the father is led into a dining hall. A pair of sculptured faces are part of the fireplace. These sculptures take on life and the human like eyes watch the old man. Another candelabrum is on the table. It appears to let go of the candles, pour a glass of wine for the father, and return to its former position. In amazement, the father lifts the tablecloth and looks under the table searching for the source of the arm. He presumably sees nothing. The father falls asleep as the fireplace faces look on.
Later, the father is awakened by a roar. He grabs his hat and gloves and runs to find the source of the noise. After extensively searching the grounds, the father sees a rose on a vine and picks it. Suddenly the Beast appears. The beast explains that as a result of picking the rose the father must die. The two enter into an agreement whereby the father may leave provided he returns within three days or sends a daughter as a replacement. In order for the father to find his way home he is given a horse by the Beast.
Arriving home, the father tells his family about his encounter with the Beast. The sisters blame Beauty for their father's dilemma. Beauty offers to take her father's place. During an argument Beauty notices that her father seems ill. When her father is taken to his bedroom, Beauty sneaks out, takes the Beast's horse back to the castle, and takes her father's place. When Beauty gets to the castle, she explores the area and is about to leave when she encounters the Beast. She faints. The Beast carries her to her bedroom and places her on the bed. When she awakes, the Beast explains to her that the castle and everything in it is hers to command and use. The Beast also says that each night at 7:00 he will meet her in the dining hall for dinner. That night when she goes to the dining hall, he proposes marriage. He also states that each night, he will make the same request. She replies that each night she will respond with the same answer of "no".
One night Beauty is awakened by strange noises. She goes out into the hall and there, from behind a statue, she watches as the Beast with smoking fingers returns from a hunting expedition. At this point, she realizes he is truly an animal who has to hunt to stay alive. However, as time passes, Beauty's attitude toward the Beast begins to mellow. They go for walks together. She has closer contact with him to the extent of giving him water from her hands. The Beast again proposes marriage. She again turns him down. He questions whether another had already proposed. She replies yes.
After running off into the woods and returning the Beast finds Beauty to be ill. She explains that she knows her father is dying and she would like to be allowed to visit him for a week. Showing her the temple of Diana and explaining that the temple contains all his riches, he gives her the key to the temple. He warns that if she doesn't return within the week, he will die. The Beast gives her his "magic" glove to transport her back to her father's house.
In the meantime, the family has had to cook and clean for themselves. When Beauty returns, the sisters are jealous of Beauty's "good fortune" and her father is revived simply by her presence. The sisters, the brother, and Avenant plot to kill the Beast and gather all his wealth. The sisters manage to steal the key to the temple and give it to Avenant. The Beast's horse returns with the "magic" mirror. The sisters take the mirror and eventually give it to Beauty. The two men take the horse to find the castle. Beauty, seeing the Beast in the mirror, realizes he is calling for her return. Using the glove, she is at the castle only to realize that the key to Diana's temple is back at her father's house. She returns to her father's house via the glove, but cannot find the key. The mirror breaks. She returns to the castle where she finds the Beast on the ground in the garden. He is dying.
In the meantime, her brother and Avenant have found the temple and are trying to enter. As Avenant is being lowered through the skylight into the room a statue of Diana shoots him with an arrow. As Avenant dies, he changes into the beast and the brother drops him. At the same time the Beast is transformed into the prince who looks like Avenant. Beauty is surprised. The Prince asks her if she is happy with his new appearance. She responds that it is something she must get used to. The two rise into the heavens to live a life together while being served by her sisters.************************************************************************************
The film with its simple plot is never the less complex. The child's story remains but with some surrealistic overtones. The idea that some inanimate objects can take on humanistic characteristics is one that Disney Studios expanded upon for their version of this story. The candelabra in the hall and on the table and the faces on the fireplace and the statues throughout the castle all lend to the idea that the castle is enchanted or magical.
The idea that Avenant, the Beast and the Prince are all played by Jean Marais is deliberate and interesting. Avenant shows some "beastlike" qualities through the character of the macho male. He hunts, fights, and broods if he doesn't get his way. The beast also hunts, fights, and broods, but he also seems to have a degree of civility. The Prince seems to be a combination of the two; the beauty of Avenant and the refinement of the beast. We, however, do not see the Prince long enough to decide if the beastlike qualities are also present. Cocteau stated that he wanted "to make the beast so human, so appealing, so superior to men, that his transformation into the Prince would be a terrible disappointment for Beauty"(Cocteau, The Art of Cinema ).
This story, as expanded by Cocteau from the original fairy tale, moves the character of both the Beast and Beauty from the simply childlike figures to complex adult characters. The world they live in is no longer a fairy tale land, but a surrealistic dream world. The two sisters, the brother, and Avenant appear to be simple folk living in a mundane, realistic world with motivating factors being one dimensional such as greed.
In this film, Cocteau uses the mirror to allow the characters to see things happening in other places. In his other works such as Orpheus, Blood of the Poet, Les Parents Terrible, and Les Enfants Terribles he uses a mirror as a mode of transporting from the real to the surrealistic worlds. Cocteau used the mirror for introspective exploration.
A horse is frequently used by Cocteau as another magical device. In La Belle et la Bete, the horse helps both Beauty, her father, and the two men to get back and forth between the castle and the family's house. In the play version of Orpheus, Cocteau also uses the horse to act as a source for poetry for the poet.
We also see the use of the glove to transport people physically from one place to another. Beauty moves almost effortlessly from the castle to her father's house and back again. In Orpheus, a glove was also used to allow the main character to step through the mirror into the underworld.
In a discussion of La Belle et la Bete, Cocteau stated that he chose this story because it is the least magical of all fairy tales. He wanted to stay away from the then modern methods and film techniques. Cocteau wanted to go against the grain of the bourgeois taste of the establishment of the time. He wanted to create something simple, yet intriguing. He wanted to produce a work of art. Cocteau always thought of himself as a poet and not an artist, director or playwright. As such he brought poetry into the genre of film through his portrayal of La Belle et la Bete.