The movie production studio Disney has monopolised the business of fairy tale adaptation for so many decades that it is sometimes hard to remember that there are alternate – and better – versions of Cinderella (such as Lotte Reiniger’s animated film) and Alice in Wonderland (Jan Švankmajer has a delightful version, Alice). Having exhausted its saccharine servings of magic-laden stories of princes¸ princesses and talking beasts, Disney is now spicing up its adaptations. Frozen (2013) was about the love between sisters rather than a man and a woman, while Maleficent rebooted the Sleeping Beauty tale from the point of view of the antagonist, depicted here as a wronged woman rather than a cracked witch. A new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, which follows the popular 1999 animated version by Disney, is scheduled for 2017, and an early teaser has already notched up an incredible number of views.
One of the definitive versions of the French fairy tale titled La Belle et la Bête and written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740 was made as early as 1946. A testament to French filmmaker Jean Cocteau’s visual imagination, the French black-and-white movie brims with magic, wit and artistry. Cocteau uses elementary visual tricks to create a fairy tale that is aimed at children and the romantics within all of us. The opening credits indicate that what will follow will not be a textbook version of the popular story – the names of the cast and crew are written in chalk on a blackboard.
The 93-minute movie follows the sacrifice of the noble and wise Belle (Josette Day), who volunteers to take her father’s place in order to please the conditions imposed by a man-beast with a lion’s face (Jean Marais). Belle’s father is a merchant on the skids, and he chances upon the beast’s magical castle while returning from a failed deal. The doors open of their own volition, hands hold out candles and pour out the wine, and the busts and statues have eyes and an amused expression.
Belle arrives at the castle to take her father’s place and placate the beast in a gorgeous and graceful slow-motion sequence. She glides through the corridor with the animated candle-sticks and past billowing curtains in wonderment, inexorably drawn to her fate.
Belle faints when she sees the beast, as any well-brought up woman would do, but soon begins to appreciate his uprightness and empathise with his loneliness. She spurns his daily offer of marriage, and shrinks in horror when he literally burns for her (one of the movie’s many sly jokes). The actors move about as though in a pantomime production and the oneiric mood relents only when Belle returns to her hardscrabble surroundings. Her vehicle is a magical glove, which beams her from the castle to the wall of her home in seconds.
Beauty and the Beast was made a few years before Cocteau’s masterpiece, Orpheus, a version of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Among that movie’s legacies is the repeated motif of Orpheus walking backwards in slow motion, which was used in Enigma’s music video “End of Innocence”.
Disney spends millions of dollars in dressing up its productions, and the new version of Beauty and the Beast is likely to have the bravura special effects that the studio is famed for. However, the depiction of memorable fantasy requires imagination rather than money, as Cocteau’s simple yet moving version proves. Everything is magical in his lustrous production. Even the white horse that brings Belle to the castle has glitter in its mane. Henri Alekan’s cinematography bathes Belle and the beast in soft light. When Belle weeps, her tears emerge as diamonds from her eyes – a simple yet poetic gesture in a movie that has no shortage of them.