Beauty and the Beast, Blu-ray (1946/2011)
Director: Jean Cocteau
Starring: Jean Marais, Josette Day, Mila Parély, Nane Germon
Based on fairytale by: Jeanne Marie LePrince De Beaumont
Technical consultant: René Clément
Music: Georges Auric (Orch. dir. by Roger Désormiere) / Philip Glass (Soloists & The Philip Glass Ensemble dir. by Michael Riesman)
Studio: The Criterion Collection 6 [7/19/11]
Video: 1.33:1 B&W 1080p HD
Audio: French, Auric score – PCM mono / Glass score – DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Extras: Choice of original Auric score in restored mono or Philip Glass opera synchronized to film, Commentary by film historian Arthur Knight, Commentary by writer and cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling, “Screening at the Majestic” 1995 documentary with interviews with cast and crew, Interview with cinematographer Henri Alekan, Behind-the-scene and publicity stills, Orig. theatrical trailer, New restored trailer, Short demo of visual restoration, illustrated booklet with essay by film critic Geoffrey O’Brien, 1947 article by Cocteau, Excerpts from Cocteau: A Biography, and Philip Glass on his opera to the film
Length: 93 minutes
Surely one of the greatest films ever made, this was Cocteau’s first actual feature, and made under difficult conditions right after WWII in France. Many of us have seen it in terrible scratched and shaky versions, with noisy crackly soundtrack, even on poor 16mm reductions. And here it is gorgeously restored with all the dream-like black and white cinematography and not only a restoration of the original Auric orchestral score but also a perfectly-lip-synced Philip Glass opera in hi-res surround, in which the singers match the original French actors. (Unfortunate though that the original thin-sounding mono track of Auric’s fine score couldn’t have been redone in surround sound by a modern full orchestra.) Interesting that the pre-restoration Criterion DVD is available at Amazon for $10 more than this new restored Blu-ray.
Cocteau created a poetic and enchanted world in this film, which with its complex erotic and psychological depths is more of a fairy tale for adults vs. the Disney treatment. Each time you see you may come with something new in the way of symbolism and meaning. Everything is very ornate and fairytale-like. Cocteau used a real chateau and strange statuary in a French park, and the costumes are just perfect – especially the detailed and original Beast makeup for Jean Marais, which took five hours to put on each day. His Beast is feral but has a good heart, and the beautiful girl – who goes to his castle in place of her father who has offended the Beast by taking one of his magical roses – escapes a Cinderella-like situation in which her mean older sisters have made her their servant in the house.
Cocteau didn’t need cgi or models for his special effects. He loved the technique of projecting scenes in reverse to achieve dream-like effects. The image of the human arms holding candleabras down the long corridor, which light up to show the way as the father enters the castle, is a piece of filmic wonder. Also the catyrids in the Beast’s fireplace, whose eyes move to track the person in the room. Mirrors become another poetic device in Cocteau’s world; both they and the reverse cinematography show up in his other films as well.
The camera angles are often unbalanced and unusual, adding to the dreamy effect. Evocative use of shadows abound, and there is nearly always some striking visual tableau to delight the eye. I was amazed to read that Cocteau wanted to shoot the film in color but the raw stock was unavailable. I don’t think I appreciated in earlier viewings the ambiguous nature of the film’s ending. It is not necessarily a “happy ever-after” Hollywood ending, as Belle finds the Beast – now free of his feral curse – looks just like her suitor Avenant, and perhaps she loved the persona of the Beast more than this handsome prince that she flies off into the heavens with. (There was briefly a rectangle around the actors as they flew off into the clouds; surprising the restoration didn’t correct that – perhaps it was unnoticed on the DVD version. There were a few other small mismatches which I had not noticed in the DVD version but now stood out. Also it was impossible to access the original Auric soundtrack from the Setup menu; it required using the Audio button on my remote while the film was in progress.)
The “Screening” documentary is wonderful to view, with both actors who played the Beauty and the Beast still looking good in 1995 and visiting the places where the film was shot. The short video on the makeup artist gives you a hint of what it must have been like for Jean Marais to have his complex and heavy Beast-face applied each day. As usual, none of the bonus features are a waste of your time with Criterion.
— John Sunier