- The Washington Times - Friday, May 16, 2003

Jean Cocteau had a disarming knack for demystifying his own approach to movie fantasy. In a special introduction for the Prague premiere of “La Belle et la Bete” (“Beauty and the Beast”), now being revived at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, the poet-illustrator-dramatist who had shifted to filmmaking in middle age explained that the fairy tale had fascinated him since childhood.

“I found the supernatural quite natural,” he said, “and still do. I made this film without any cunning. I had to be a Beast to describe the sufferings of a Beast, and it was this that earned me the fine praise of our poet Paul Eluard: ‘To understand this film you must love your dog more than your car.’ After that, there is not a lot to say.”

Mr. Cocteau, however, had quite a bit more to say as the movie became an international success in the late 1940s. He published a diary summarizing the production and postproduction, which covered a period from August 1945 to June 1946. Informative and eloquent, it became a model for all similar reflections by working directors over the subsequent half-century.

Mr. Cocteau duplicated the down-to-earth appeal of his Prague remarks: “My method is simple: not to bother about poetry. It must come of its own accord. Merely whispering its name frightens it away. I am trying to make a table. You will decide, afterwards, whether to eat on it, question it, or build a fire with it.”

The consensus was that this metaphorical table was best appreciated as a magic mirror, revealing a distinctive flair for cinematic enchantment and spectacle. The musical comedy charm and gusto of the 1991 Disney animated version of “Beauty and the Beast” must dominate popular impressions of the fairy tale now, but the newer film hasn’t totally effaced the Cocteau forerunner, whose imaginative and resourceful aspects may be enhanced during this engagement.

The AFI Theater has acquired fresh 35 mm prints struck from the original negative. The restored Silver Theatre should provide an ideal setting for experiencing a famous movie that is returning in optimum pictorial condition. Please note that it is a limited two-week engagement (today through May 29). An additional one-week run is scheduled for the AFI National Theater at the Kennedy Center (Friday, May 23 through June).

The arrival of another summer season tends to reinforce one’s esteem for what Mr. Cocteau and his colleagues achieved with relatively meager resources and frequently unreliable equipment in the aftermath of World War II.

The current fashion for digital overkill, illustrated at its most conspicuous and interminable this weekend in “The Matrix Reloaded,” has the ironic effect of flattering outmoded feats of invention. The marvels that accumulate when Josette Day as Beauty consents to be the hostage of Jean Marais as a splendidly masked and lovelorn Beast acquire a special luster when viewed against the “Matrix” clutter and solemnity.

Mr. Cocteau and his designers were obliged to depend on stagecraft and editing tricks. Their manipulation of slow motion, especially when Beauty first enters the castle of the Beast, remains more elegant than anything contrived for the levitating action scenes in the “Matrix” spectacles.

Perhaps no other director has surpassed Mr. Cocteau at glorifying the term “smoke and mirrors.” The smoke is associated with elemental animal violence: The Beast’s hands smolder when nocturnal killing fits overwhelm him. Beauty discovers him outside her door after one such prowl. Growling “Pardon, pardon,” he backtracks in shame, telling her to close the door quickly before observing further evidence of his bestial nature.

It took a few more years before the Cocteau technicians perfected mirrors as a liquefying portal to the underworld in his last great feature, an updated “Orpheus,” circa 1950. At the time of “La Belle et la Bete,” the magic mirror in Beauty’s chamber at the castle sufficed as a teleportation device. With the aid of a similarly magical glove, it allowed her to hasten to the side of her ailing father at their distant farmhouse and then back again, to comfort a Beast in greater jeopardy.

Even some of the props that don’t work as well as they should have a peculiar organic charm. An unforgettable feature of the castle is disembodied arms that protrude from the walls, clutching candelabra. One of these hidden extras is also positioned beneath the Beast’s dinner table, with his arm draped around a table lamp. A moment comes when the arm needs to pour Beauty a drink from an ornate pitcher. Clearly, the position will make it an impossible feat of heavy lifting for even the strongest wrist. No problem. A timely reverse angle allows the hand to get an adequate grip. While not an animated film in the strict sense, Mr. Cocteau’s “Belle” manipulates live-action photography in ways that anticipate illusions that do lend themselves more easily to animation — and eventually to the Disney version of the same story.

There are probably several ways of rejuvenating “Beauty and the Beast,” but Mr. Cocteau may have had the last word when it came to expressing the frustrations and privileges of being a film director.

“What a struggle it is!” he wrote. “A struggle against electricity and crackling arc lights; against the treacherous little illnesses brought on by fatigue; against running makeup, a sound system that records intrusive noises, the conscience of the chief cameraman who wants to adjust the lighting, the poor film stock that will not register contrasts, and the lab which over- or underexposes the film … . When the cameras are running, your heart stops between the word ‘action’ and the word ‘cut.’ … The slightest sign of discouragement would demoralize everyone. I suppose it is the obligation to seem self-confident which eventually gives directors so much assurance.”

***1/2

TITLE: “La Belle et la Bete”

RATING: No MPAA rating (released in 1946, decades before the advent of a rating system; adult subject matter, with eerie and ominous aspects; fleeting violent episodes)

CREDITS: Directed by Jean Cocteau. Screenplay by Mr. Cocteau, based on the story by Madame Leprince de Beaumont. Cinematography by Henri Alekan. Production and costume design by Christian Berard. Art direction by Rene Moulaert and Lucien Carre. Costumes executed by Escoffier and Castillo. Makeup by Arakelian. Music by George Auric. In French with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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