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Criterion Collection: Beauty and the Beast [Blu-ray] | DVD Review

“Influenced by the avant garde artists of the early 20th Century, Cocteau developed an eerie surrealistic visual style; rich with symbolism, magical settings and photographic effects. But, thanks to his background as a writer, Cocteau would employ his signature stylistics in the telling of generally coherent narratives – regardless of their underpinnings in fantasy – and his films achieved worldwide recognition and critical success. It’s not a stretch to describe Jean Cocteau as the Julie Taymor of his era.”

Jean Cocteau’s retelling of the classic, familiar fable Beauty and the Beast is a perfect match of material and réalisateur. Possessed of enormous creative energy, Cocteau was a painter, poet, novelist, composer, designer and actor who also somehow found the time to make made ambitious, visionary films. Cocteau’s filmic antecedents trace back to the Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès. In fact, Cocteau was well into his teens and on the verge of becoming a published poet when Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon had its auspicious debut in Paris in 1902. Exposed to the fantastical possibilities of cinema at an impressionable age, the imaginative Cocteau would take those elements a step further. Influenced by the avant garde artists of the early 20th Century, Cocteau developed an eerie surrealistic visual style; rich with symbolism, magical settings and photographic effects. But, thanks to his background as a writer, Cocteau would employ his signature stylistics in the telling of generally coherent narratives – regardless of their underpinnings in fantasy – and his films achieved worldwide recognition and critical success. It’s not a stretch to describe Jean Cocteau as the Julie Taymor of his era.

Beauty and the Beast is not a film that can be fully appreciated through today’s eyes. A number of special effects are attempted – all of them physical, through-the-camera gimmicks – and the results feature varying degrees of persuasiveness. Obviously, special effects in 1946 consisted mainly of what ever could be accomplished with make-up, fishing line and deviant frame rates, but despite these limitations the film abounds with visual cleverness. The beast’s liar is presented as an ancient castle complete with the dark, smoky atmospherics of witchcraft, surrounded by an overgrown forest shrouded in a black mist. The crumbling palace is furnished with statuary of the undead; their shining eyes following every move of the inhabitants. Muscular, disembodied arms reach out from every wall, holding candelabras that magically light the creepy, silent corridors. All this is either fantastically foreboding or worthy of a skewering from Mystery Science Theater, depending on the viewer’s mindset. Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast offers contemporary audiences a glimpse into a magnificent cinematic artifact from 65 years ago, and expectations will need to be adjusted accordingly.

In Cocteau’s version of the legend, Beauty and the Beast is the story of young woman named Beauty, or Belle in this case (Josette Day) who lives the drudgerous life of a scullery maid while her flighty –and yes, somewhat evil – older sisters (Mila Parely, Nane Germon) pursue giggly lives of leisure and social climbing. Her brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair) isn’t any prize either, as his talents are limited to sarcasm and running up huge gambling debts. When his deficits threaten the family with penury, their widowed, merchant father (Marcel Andre) makes an arduous horseback trip to meet an arriving ship packed with valuable goods he intends to sell at a handsome profit. Along the way he gets lost in a thick fog and ends up in a bizarre, alien wilderness. When he picks a wild rose to take back to Belle, The Beast suddenly confronts him in a glowing, thunderous apparition. A monstrous animal-human hybrid, the angry Beast makes a bargain with the terrified man: if Belle will agree to take her father’s place as prisoner, then the Beast will spare his life.

As the dutiful Belle arrives to fulfill the bargain, the balance of the film becomes a showcase for Cocteau’s imaginative stagings; imagination that often outstripped the era’s technology. But open minded viewers will find interesting and admirable moments. The Beast’s complex make-up, by Hagop Arakelian, is the film’s star special effect, and it compares favorably to today’s state of the art prosthetics. The Beast, played by Cocteau’s muse, protégé and long time lover Jean Marais, is still allowed a reasonable range of expressions despite Arakelian’s thick appliances. Belle’s entrance to the castle features a sequence where she appears to glide down a hallway illuminated by flowing drapes, a classic effect repeated in countless 1980s music videos. When Belle acquires the ability to teleport in the final reels, her sudden appearance through a wall provides one of the film’s most haunting images. And, as the story reaches its famous climactic role reversal and the fierce master becomes a hapless slave of love, Cocteau reaches even further into his bag of tricks for a dénouement as enchanted as the Beast’s ethereal domain.

The transfer features dark, rich, inky blacks and it’s a joy to behold. The camera original was shot on a variety of film stocks – film was in short supply after the war – but the slight shifts in visual attributes only adds to film’s sense of magical possibilities. Shadow detail is quite remarkable for a film so dramatically photographed, and the Beast’s close-ups reveal every bit of the painstaking labor required to affect Marais’ transformation. The film is presented in its original 1:33.1 frame.

There are two options of soundtrack. The first is the original mono, and it’s been restored to pristine clarity. Using optical tracks as source material, all popping, crunching and grinding has been studiously removed, rendering a film that sounds as good as it looks.

In the second option, the entire film has been restriped with an original opera score by Philip Glass, and it’s simply magnificent. Composed in 1995, the opera La belle et la bête was designed to be performed live with a large scale projection of the film in the background. Amazingly, the lip sync of the singers with the actors’ dialogue is spot on about 95% of the time, and Glass’ famous ability to create eerie musical passages works extremely well with the film’s surrealistic mood. Presented in 5.1, the opera track is powerful and dynamic, with booming bass, soaring highs and truly impressive sonic force. This track is a wonderful addition, and I intend to screen the film again with the opera track engaged as soon as possible.

Two commentaries: one by film historian Arthur Knight and one by writer and cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling
Viewers are offered a choice of commentary tracks as well. The first, by American film scholar Arthur Knight, is a wealth of background information on the production. Reading mainly from prepared comments, including quotations from Cocteau’s journals, Knight goes into great detail on many aspects of the film. Cocteau’s relationship with Art Director Christian Berard is discussed along with the interesting revelation that much of the Beast’s makeup design was inspired by Marais’ beloved pet dog.

Frayling covers some of the same ground, but his emphasis is more toward the film’s literary aspects, including common threads Beauty and the Beast shares with numerous other classic fairy tales. Freudian aspects are discussed as well, and Frayling makes an interesting case that Belle’s attraction to the Beast may have stemmed from unresolved issues with her father. Both tracks offer compelling analysis and fans of the film will find them time well spent.

Screening at the Majestic, a 1995 documentary featuring interviews with cast and crew
A thorough and well made featurette, Screening at the Majestic revisits some of the locations used in Beauty and the Beast, and re-creates actual camera angles to give us a deeper appreciation of Cocteau’s imaginative vision. Actors Marais and Parely offer their poignant recollections, and a lengthy sequence with cameraman Henri Alekan amusingly details some of the perils of shooting a fantasy film on location, and the improvisational solutions often required. The piece is an enjoyable 27 minutes and is an indispensable supplement.

Interview with cinematographer Henri Alekan
Produced for Luxembourg Television in 1995, this 9 minute inclusion gives us an overview of Alekan’s filmography, and a few more behind-the-scenes tidbits of Beauty and the Beast. Aleken comments on a few selected scenes and describes his techniques for creating emotion with light. This segment will appeal mainly to those interested in technical aspects of cinema.

Secrets Professionals: tête-à-tête
This oddity is an extract from a French TV show from 1964, and features make-up artist Hagop Arakelian demonstrating his trade in the studio while attempting to answer questions. We see Arakelian perform a number of transformations with make-up and he offers a few insights into the tricks and techniques of his craft. There’s little here specific to Beauty and the Beast, but it’s an interesting 8 minutes, as the program is imaginatively presented for a TV talk show of its era.

Rare behind-the-scenes photos and publicity stills
Photographed by G.R. Aldo, this interactive gallery features over 100 images from the production. The pictures range from formal, carefully posed portraits to candid scenes of cast and crew relaxing and clowning around. It’s fun for awhile, but the progression gets a little repetitive.

Film restoration demonstration
This 4 minute piece deals with the restoration and preservation of Beauty and the Beast, a project undertaken in the 1990s to coincide with the 100th anniversary of cinema. A number of side by side comparisons are shown, giving us a good look at the technical aspects of film salvaging. The use of Pro Tools in audio restoration is demonstrated in detail, fostering an even greater appreciation of this brilliant program, and the tremendous amount of time and labor it saves.

Original trailer, directed and narrated by Jean Cocteau, and the 1995 restoration trailer
More of a press release than what we now think of as a trailer, the original version is over 4 minutes in length and features Cocteau as a sort of tour guide in voice over. Cast and crew are acknowledged in detail, along with a brief plot synopsis. Cocteau amusingly ends the presentation by saying, “This film was hard to make. We hope you will come see it.”

The 1995 version runs under 2 minutes, has little narration and consists of an assembly of scenes that emphasize the film’s dream-like quality.

A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Geoffrey O’Brien (Blu-ray edition only), a 1947 piece on the film by Cocteau, excerpts from Francis Steegmuller’s 1970 Cocteau: A Biography, a reprint of Mme. Leprince de Beaumont’s original fable (DVD edition only), and an introduction to Glass’s opera by the composer
At 32 pages, this hefty publication is rich in film stills, production credits and a number of interesting essays and excerpts. Cocteau’s missive Once Upon a Time provides the most compelling reading, as it reveals he had high hopes for Beauty and the Beast’s success in America, while denigrating the limitations of the French film industry. Well designed with the look of a glossy magazine, the booklet is another fine example of Criterion’s high quality print materials.

Criterion has done a superb job of crafting a deluxe blu-ray edition worthy of Cocteau’s visionary masterpiece. The inclusion of Philip Glass’ operatic treatment is the perfect audio compliment, taking advantage of the film’s grand theatricality to create a vibrant work that sparkles with narrative possibilities. While many of the film’s visual effects will appear awkward to viewers accustomed to modern CGI extravaganzas, Beauty and the Beast can still be appreciated as a film of rare and exquisite visual lyricism. Like its title characters, the film itself seems to be under the influence of a magical spell, as it relentlessly weaves a tapestry of haunting images and unforgettable characters. Still, one can’t help but wonder what Cocteau could have created had he gotten his hands on Abobe After Effects.

Reviewed by David Anderson

Movie rating – 4

Disc Rating – 4

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David Anderson is a 25 year veteran of the film and television industry, and has produced and directed over 2000 TV commercials, documentaries and educational videos. He has filmed extensively throughout the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean for such clients as McDonalds, General Motors and DuPont. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Reygadas (Silent Light), Weerasathakul (Syndromes and a Century), Dardennes (Rosetta), Haneke (Caché), Ceylon (Climates), Andersson (You the Living), Denis (35 Shots of Rum), Malick (The Tree of Life), Leigh (Another Year), Cantet (The Class)

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