Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Best French language films - part 1: 'La Belle et la Bête'

Be sure to check out part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5 of the series.

I grew up watching French films because my mother is not only a movie buff, but also a French teacher. My French was much better then, but it seems, the more of the language I lose, the more of a Francophile I've become. I wanted to do a sort of French movie retrospective over the next few weeks, so I will start with one of the best – 1946 film, La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast).

If you are young or young at heart you already know the plot of La Belle et la Bête. It is the story of the aching love that a good hearted Beast has for a kind, naïve, young girl (played by Josette Day). It is a fairytale for children about anguished love, with adult themes of death, longing, dreams, and fear.

Often considered director Jean Cocteau's masterwork, La Belle et la Bête inspired Disney's oscar nominated animated classic Beauty and the Beast (1991). The film seems timeless to us now, but surrealist Cocteau, styled his film after the incandescent paintings of Jan Vermeer and the engravings of Gustave Doré at a time when bleak war-related realism dominated French cinema in occupied France. One of the film's most unforgettable scenes takes place when Belle first enters the Beast's gloomy but enchanted castle and finds the bewitched candelabras of living arms that previously greeted her father to the Beast's castle. It is a scene that has to be watched – its strange, but magical elegance is nearly impossible to describe with words.

As the film's plot develops the audience watches the Beast's gut wrenching love for Belle grow. Each night he asks Belle to marry him, and each night, he is refused. Though Belle grows more fond of the Beast in time, the audience watches the brilliance of Josette Day's performance. All at once we see an innocent country girl turn chilly and stone cold, then elegant and regal, then back again to the fragile innocent youth. It's as if we've been given three Belle's at once – and the Beast is desperately in love with all three of her incarnations. While Belle seems to be three women, it is actor Jean Marais who has to actually play three characters – Belle's cruel admirer Avenant, the Beast, and the Prince the Beast turns back into. Each performance is mesmerizing, but it is Marais' portrayal of the Beast that is best of all. In fact, the Beast is so pitiable and so persistent in his pursuit of Belle that when he transforms into the Prince we suddenly miss the Beast.

The greatest asset that La Belle et la Bête possesses is Jean Cocteau's surreal vision. His imagination brings us mirrors made of water, statues brought to life in one of the most beautiful fantasy films of all time.

La Belle et la Bête is available on DVD in both Europe and North America. It isn't included in the Jean Cocteau DVD collection that includes The Blood of a Poet and Testament of Orpheus, but I think it ought to and hopefully one day, it will be.

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  1. "Très bon début" for your French movie retrospective...I look forwards to your next choice of film.

  2. Thank you so much for showing an interest! I plan on having the second part either on Thursday or Friday of this week.