Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that runs every Thursday and celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
To say that Jean Cocteau suffered for his art is an understatement, as evidenced by his account of the making of his surreal masterpiece, 1946's 'Beauty and the Beast.' In 'Diary of a Film,' Cocteau recounts a list of never-ending hurdles that plagued the French fairy tale film. Interestingly enough, many of these difficulties managed to transform themselves into something poetic, enhancing the movie's magical premise.
Production started after the war, and the director faced difficulty gathering the materials he needed, including enough of the same film stock to complete the lavish picture. The various textures worked to Cocteau's advantage, however, adding a certain depth to the striking visuals.
Electricity was scarce and several of the crew had to work by candlelight, which seems lyrical considering the appearance of candles throughout the movie.
During the production, an intensely painful skin condition and other illnesses hospitalized Cocteau. The director tried to be diplomatic about his suffering, given star Jean Marais' extensive and uncomfortable makeup application to transform into the Beast. Although the "cracks, wounds and itches" and his "bleeding hands" plagued Cocteau, "the face and the hands of Jean Marais [were] covered with a so painful crust" serving as a humble reminder of their mutual suffering. I suppose it helps that they were lovers. It's said that Cocteau's disfiguring disease may have helped shape the creation of the Beast, which the director seemed to profoundly identify with.
Despite these and other challenges, Cocteau crafted a romantic and enchanting film that is ripe with allegory and symbolism, alluding to the writings of Freud, the struggles for French freedom after German occupation and the realms of childhood imagination. Although Cocteau aspired to create artistic cinema that was easily translated by the general public, 'Beauty and the Beast' is rooted in a series of themes and complex emotions that shouldn't be underestimated because of its childlike wonder.
Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont's 1757 fairy tale -- and parts of Marie-Cathérine d'Aulnoy's 1687 story -- are the inspiration for Cocteau's fantasy film about the rags to riches Belle (Josette Day), who ventures to a mysterious, gothic castle to save her father (Marcel André). She's taking his place as prisoner after he picked a rose from the garden of the Beast (Marais) who lives there. Eventually she falls in love with the creature, but refuses his advances. The Beast submits her to a series of "tests," which will prove her affections toward him once and for all.
The most unforgettable scenes in the film occur when Belle steps foot inside the castle for the first time. We are instantly transported into a visual and emotional tableaux of romantic and fantastical wonder. The first fifteen minutes of the film are nearly forgettable in comparison, but hints of stylistic choices help set the tone for the grandiose vision that lies ahead.
Cocteau looked to the works of the Flemish masters like painter Johannes Vermeer, whose influence can be seen in the design of Belle's homestead and the elegantly draped fashions of her haughty sisters. This is also repeated when we watch the fluid motions of Belle racing down the candle-lit corridor in slow motion, as pictured in this week's frame. Belle's dress sumptuously floats around her, like something out of a dream -- thanks to the work of costume designers Marcel Escoffier and Antonio Castillo (with help from Pierre Cardin) and most famously, the elegant designs of Christian Bérard, whose touches also extended to the decor.
The richly detailed and dense engravings of Gustave Doré also shape the costuming and the castle's mythical interior. His illustrations for stories like Perrault's 'Puss in Boots' -- whose tale is filled with magic, shape-shifting creatures, similar costumes and an iconic castle -- seems to be a close influence.
The filmmaker's other talented collaborators helped him capture the baroque and surreal design he was after, particularly cinematographer Henri Alekan. Cocteau wanted to achieve the "soft gleam of hand-polished old silver," which cast a lush and unusual light (with arms, even) over the set, bringing each and every shadow to life. Our frame is a perfect example of this.
We arrive upon Cocteau's 'Beauty and the Beast' from the other side of the looking glass and become instantly lost in its fantasy world. Cocteau's choice to elevate the fairy tale beyond a child's story is made decadent and all the more wondrous by the fantastic designs and visions of his creative team. 'Beauty and the Beast' remains one of cinema's most enduring and magical creations to ever grace the screen.