Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête is a dance engulfed in shadow. The more faithful 1946 film injects the proverbially touted “Tale as old as time” with the riveting tension of an Argentine Tango. While the titular character Beauty spends time in an enchanted castle, she is approached by the Beast at the same time every evening. Their meetings become passionate and suspense filled dances in which one can be either ravished or mauled.
Part of this anticipation can be attributed to Jean Marais’ compelling performance as the Beast. Marais portrays the creature with a prideful nobility and heartbreaking vulnerability. The haughty aspect is expressed whenever the Beast is speaking as well as the small gestures provided. Some notable actions include the occasional subtle elevation of his head or whenever he is playing with some of the individual pieces of his jewel-encrusted necklace. Whereas the sheer exposed nature of the character is manifested in Marais’ eyes that create a deep-seated sense of wounded shame as the conflict of his animalistic and human side rages.
Despite the film cinematically adhering to the era of German Expressionism, particularly with the use of shadows created by the naturally lit candles throughout the duration, visually, the picture feels more in line with the Universal Monster Movies of the 1930s and 1940s. For example, the seemingly depth filled frame (particularly evident in the scenes that take place on the castle grounds) recalls the atmospheric woods scenes in George Waggner’s 1941 The Wolf Man. And the imaginative castle interiors called to mind the extensive laboratory of the James Whales’ Frankenstein pictures.
Finally, in a somewhat elusive new wrinkle to the original story Beauty has a cantankerous suitor called Avenant (Jean Marais) who ends up attempting to steal treasure held within a stronghold of the Beast’s castle. He is eventually killed by an animated statue of the Roman goddess Diana. As this happens, the Beast is transformed back into the Prince. There is a suggestion that the Prince has assumed the form of Beauty’s rejected admirer. However, this merely feels like a disinterested shrug. The choice has no psychological or narrative interest and in the end seems like an odd addition.
Despite this aspect, much like the Rose represents a pledge in the film, the picture promises cinematic immortality for the much-cherished love story.