Not much needs to be added to the much-loved tale of Beauty and the Beast, with numerous film and TV-versions having crept up over the years. However, there’s a lot to admire when it comes to director Cocteau’s 1946 innovative b/w version – La Belle et la Bete – with its spectacular vision, enchanting atmosphere and opulent costumes.

La Belle et la Bete first appeared in print in 1740, to be precise it was one of the tales in the book ‘La Jeune Americaine, et les Contes Marins’ by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Gallon de Villeneuve. 16 years later it was abridged, re-written and published again by one Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and has become (in variations thereof) a popular tale across Europe ever since. Although Beauty and the Beast already had its ‘cinematic premiere’ in 1934, it was only an animated 7-min affair distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures/Vitaphone Corporation.
It is therefore fair to say that Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation is the first real movie version of this well-known folk tale and what a version it is! Not only do we have to thank Cocteau’s vision but Henri Alekan’s masterly cinematography and Christian Bérard’s breath-taking costumes (inspired by the 17th century Flemish masters) for it. Their combined talents lift this fairytale way above the usual standard. Last but not least its two performers, Josette Day as ‘Belle’ and Jean Marais in the triple role of Beast / farmer Avenant and Prince, make this gem complete. The film is generously complemented by George Auric’s truly memorable score!

Loosely incorporating elements of Cinderella, the tale begins with Belle, the youngest of three sisters, dressed poorly and scrubbing the floor of the home which she shares with her father (Marcel André) and her two spoilt, rude and arrogant sisters Felicie (Mila Parély) and Adelaide (Nane Germon). Then there’s brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair), a layabout with somewhat roguish mannerisms whose best friend Avenant (J. Marais) is besotted with Belle though she makes it clear that her priority is to take care of her father who lost a fortune at sea and whose health has been poorly ever since. It is never really explained as to why Belle is reduced to the role of a maid, cleaning and cooking all day, while her two sisters busy themselves with idleness and gossip. In a way it doesn’t make much sense therefore their father is seen as a mild-mannered man who is kindly disposed to all three of his daughters. One day the father returns to announce he suddenly has come into wealth that will enable him to clear his debts and so leaves the rural home to ride into town and settle his affairs. Before he leaves he asks his daughters what presents they would like and of course, the spoilt sisters demand luxurious dresses and jewels while Belle humbly asks for a simple rose. Meanwhile, Ludovic signs a contract with a moneylender which authorizes him to sue the father if he fails to pay his debts.

Upon arrival in town the father learns his fortune has been seized. Broken, he is forced to return back home through a dense forest in the middle of the night when suddenly he stumbles across a mysterious castle which does not seem inhabited. A magic candelabra guides the astonished father to a dinner table and after falling asleep he is awakened by an almighty rumble. Inspecting the castle’s grounds he comes across a rose bush and plucks a rose, as he promised Belle to do so. Suddenly the castle’s master, The Beast (part lion, part cat, part monster) appears out of nowhere and scorns the father for having plucked one of his treasured roses. And this deed is punishable by death! However, after further inquiry and upon learning that the poor man has three daughters the Beast offers him a deal: he is willing to let the father go if one of the three daughters agrees to come and live with him, the mighty Beast, in the castle… Reluctantly the father agrees and the Beast lends him his white horse Magnificent to take him home. After the father explains the situation Belle agrees to take her father’s place and live with the Beast – much to the father’s sorrow. And so the tale of Belle and the Beast begins to unfold…

The set pieces are dreamlike, as is the camera work. At time is feels as if Belle glides across the castle corridors instead of walking. The candelabras have faces and eyes, everything seems alive, even the walls. Jean Marais lends his Beast the right amount of tortured pathos while also remaining cruel and unforgiving. Josette Day strikes the right balance between anguish, repulsion, pity and ultimately a loving understanding and tenderness towards the Beast.

Yes, LA BELLE ET LA BETE is a morality tale but above all it is a timeless fairytale guaranteed to enchant young and old.
This superbly restored High Definition version furthermore offers an array of interesting Special Features, including a 13min animated version from 1938 (by Renè Bertrand) based on Charles Perrault’s folktale ‘Bluebeard’: Barbe Bleu.