Belle and The Beast

“You stole a rose, so you must die.”

It’s the year 1946 in France. The nation is recovering from years of debt and injured population. Half of the surviving veterans are mentally injured of suffering from a roughly preformed amputation. The heart of France had been damaged and morale was low. Families were struggling to survive rather than have entertainment. The film business was suffering. A large art movement of that time was Dadaism, a belief that “everything is art”. The pieces resemble collages and have very prominent anti-war messages. This artform spawned in wartime from a strong attitude towards the unavoidable war and limited resources. Even the cultural boom of that time was somewhat influenced by politics. There was a general lack of fantasy and imagination. In an era where everything from food rations to clothing is stylistically and economically moderate, La Belle et la Bête is a film that celebrates escapism, decadence, and fantasy. All three of which are key concepts in what makes a cult film.

French cinema during the war was almost non-existent, with only ten or twenty feature length films made a year. Between 1939 and 1940, during the French-German conflict, all films in production were halted and no new films were produced. The films that were produced had to follow strict censorship laws that crippled most productions or even ceased completely.

Before  La Belle et la Bête begins there is a statement from director, Jean Cocteau, telling the viewer to suspend their disbelief and engage in this film an open-mindedness similar to a child. It’s a story for all ages that was lovingly and stylishly created.  With masters of their craft working in all departments, the films technical skill, for the time period, is clear in a viewing. Masterful French director René Clément was responsible for the brilliant and smartly simple special effects. Henri Alekan, cinematographer, is known for noir-like work on such films as Wings of Desire and Roman Holiday (though it’s not Noir it is oscar nominated black and white cinematography).  Famous fashion illustrator and designer Christian Bérard intricately designed the main characters, the costumes. They were produced with materials and manufactured in the fashion house of Lanvin. The beast alone took five hours of preparation to put on costume and makeup.

Of course the restricted equipment, locations, and rights that a normal film crew would have were a cause of the war. Cocteau used different types of film stock because of the limited availability of such a thing. He later stated that he was glad he used different types of film stock because it added to the “dream-like” quality of the film. The scene where the Beast is drinking water from a clear lake with greenery and magical plants all around him was actually shot in a sewage runoff of the production studio. Many of the creative choices were influenced by the limited resources of the film, but this specific film is known for being thrifty at times, but keeping its heart and style.

The style of the film is luxurious fantasy stripped down to a mixture of lighting and camera tricks. There is a presence of magic that is somewhat dark and mysterious. A good example is the interior of the castle. The hallway is simply hand holding candlesticks for light. The viewer never sees the walls or the floor. Everything is dark except for areas that give off light. It is as if the father of Belle is in his own mind. This is no coincidence because the time this film was released was the peak of Freud’s influence on Europe. The film blends fantasy-like imagination with a psychoanalytical counterpoint. The beast’s home, for example, was designed with influence from surreal artists such as Dalí and Gaudí. This fairy tale plays off of the more European style of fairy tale, which is darker and more dramatic than the polished and safe Disney. Every note of music and every frame are dripping with eerie fantasy and romantically indulgent style.

The film has has been recognized as not only a cult film, but a staple in film history. It’s a classic that is timeless.  La Belle et la Bête‘s subtle special effects surpass time. The film’s has influenced many others in their style and use of limited resources. It’s more modernly known for composer Phillip Glass’s operatic score that synchronizes exactly with this film. He mutes the film completely and any dialogue that is spoken in the film is sung by a chorus. The film has also been praised (as most fairy tales are) with having many central themes and being wonderfully inspiring. And with a beautiful, simple, and surrealistic style, the empty spaces can be filled by the mind of the viewer.

Here is a link to the scene where Belle is entering the castle: