Criterion // 1946 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // July 13th, 2011
Il était une fois...
"If I were a man, perhaps I could do as you say. But poor beasts who wish to prove their love can only grovel on the ground and die."
When a failing merchant gets lost in the woods, he finds himself at a mysterious castle, where arms sprout from the walls and portraits seem to watch him. As he's leaving, he picks a rose for his daughter, Belle (Josette Day, Stolen Affections). As he does so, he is confronted by a Beast (Jean Marais, Orpheus), the owner of the castle, who explains that the merchant's crime -- "stealing" his precious rose -- is punishable by death. The only way the merchant can survive is if he sends one of his daughters in his place. The Beast allows the merchant to go home to get his things in order, sending him on "La Magnifique," a white horse that will bring the merchant back.
The merchant has three daughters. Two are haughty layabouts; the other is the lovely Belle, whose life consists of waiting on her sisters and caring for their father. The merchant also has a wastrel son, whose best friend (also Marais) is in love with Belle. When the merchant tells his story, his son and his friend want to kill the Beast, but the merchant tells them the Beast is too powerful. The two daughters laugh at him, but Belle is concerned.
In the middle of the night, Belle slips out of the house and climbs on La Magnifique. She is taken to the castle of the Beast.
But instead of death, Belle finds a lonely soul who wants her companionship.
Jean Cocteau's version of Beauty and the Beast (La belle et la bête) is one of the most beautiful and enchanting films ever made, a masterpiece that uses surrealist touches to tell a classic story.
Cocteau was one of the great artists of the 20th Century, and Beauty and the Beast is a true work of art. Cocteau infuses this simple tale with bold, unforgettable imagery and a lyrical quality that quite literally transports the viewer to a fairy-tale world of a cursed, yet noble, creature transformed by a kind heart.
Cocteau's stunning visuals -- perfectly complemented by Georges Auric's achingly beautiful score -- tell the story with such heart and magic, that the dialogue becomes secondary. I once watched the film with my then-4-year-old niece, who neither spoke French nor could read subtitles, and she was completely captivated, imposing her own interpretations on the proceedings that followed the story pretty closely.
While Belle's life is part of the drab "real world," the Beast's castle is both magical and foreboding. The sequence in which Belle arrives is one of the most hauntingly beautiful in film history. She enters in slow motion, like a dream, disembodied arms protruding from the wall, holding torches to light her way. She glides through the castle, past billowing curtains and statues that silently turn their heads to look at her; she encounters a door that gently guides her and a magic mirror. Unlike the Disney update, this is not a bright, welcoming place of singing teapots and candlesticks; it's grim and frightening, and Belle knows she is there as a prisoner. Cocteau creates this vision without benefit of modern CGI, relying on such tricks as moving Belle through a hallway on a platform, to give the illusion of floating, or running the film backwards.
Criterion first issued this film on DVD in 1998. In 2003, they reissued it, significantly upgrading the image and adding a wealth of supplements. For this Blu-ray, they've improved on their early improvements. Blacks are deeper, the contrast is stronger, subtitles are easier to read, and there's a fine film grade. There is still some print damage, of course, and the image is overall soft, but nothing unexpected for a film over 60 years old. Audio, which like the image was excellent in the earlier release, is similarly upgraded here, a remarkably clean and clear track.
The supplemental package on this Blu-ray is excellent, but with the exception of some of the essays in the ever-present Criterion booklet, they're all ported from the 2003 DVD.
* Two Commentaries, one from film historian Arthur Knight, the other from writer Sir Christopher Frayling;
* An Opera by Phillip Glass; this is really a great addition, an audio option to watch the film with Glass's opera as the soundtrack (in Dolby Surround);
* Screening at the Majestic, a 1995 retrospective documentary on the making of the film, featuring interviews with Jean Marais and a number of the other surviving actors and crew members;
* Interview with Henri Alekan, the film's director of photography; this was also from 1995;
* Secrets Prefessionnels: Tête-à-Tête, a French television program from 1964 featuring makeup artist Hagop Arakelian.
There's also a Restoration Demo from 1995, trailers, a stills gallery, and a booklet of essays.
The 2003 DVD included a booklet with a reprint of the original story by Mme. Leprince de Beaumont illustrated with stills from the film. For the Blu-ray, Mme. Leprince's story is nowhere to be found, which is kind of a pity. The Blu ray booklet includes an essay by Cocteau and an excerpt from a book by Cocteau biographer Francis Steegmuller, both of which were in the 2002 booklet, as well as two new essays, one by Geoffrey O'Brien, and the other by Phillip Glass, on his opera. This last had been an on-screen text introduction to the opera in the earlier edition.
It's a great film and an outstanding presentation, but while it's improved over the earlier release, I don't know that it's such a drastic improvement to warrant an upgrade if you own the 2003 DVD. I actually watched the DVD and the Blu-ray side by side, and while the Blu-ray image was certainly richer and more detailed, I can't say that the DVD was especially weak. If Criterion had added some new supplements, this would have been an easy recommend for an upgrade, but as it is, while it's a strong presentation, I can't give an unqualified recommendation for a double dip, though if you don't own the 2003 DVD, this Blu ray is a must-have.
Haunting, timeless, and deeply moving, if you haven't seen Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, you owe it to yourself to check out this masterpiece. This is an exquisite rendering of a fable for both adults and children. Criterion, as always, has done an exceptional job.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French, Opera)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (French, Feature)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1946
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Philip Glass Opera
* TV Excerpt
* Restoration Demo
* Image Gallery