Long before Disney’s 1991 animated triumph, Jean Cocteau filmed Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bete) in 1946, in France. Before the days of CGI, and modern creature makeup, Cocteau simply dazzles. Known primarily as a poet and a painter before the release of the film,  Cocteau’s version of the much-filmed Jean-Marie Leprince de Beaumont tale is not aimed at children. While they may enjoy the fantasy, the artistic texturing, blend of naturalism with surrealism and social subtext are designed for adults.

Beauty and the Beast (1946)

The basic story is well known: Belle (Josette Day) is the youngest child of a destitute merchant (Marcel André). She has a brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair), and two extremely vain sisters, Félicie (Mila Parély) and Adélaïde (Nane Germon). Ludovic’s handsome friend Avenant (Jean Marais) wants to marry Belle, but she refuses to leave her father. One day, as the merchant returns from his latest failed venture, he gets lost in the woods, and stumbles into the courtyard of a forbidding castle. He is attended to by invisible servants and treated like an honored guest. However, as he leaves, the merchant plucks a rose for Belle, angering the castle’s owner: a terrifying half-man, half-animal (Jean Marais). The Beast will release him only if he promises that within three days he will either return to meet his fate, or one of his three daughters will come in his place.

The merchant says he is old and nearly dead and will return himself. Of course, daughter Belle secretly returns to the Beast’s enchanted castle to become his hostage. Belle is luminous, pure and honor bound. She takes her father’s place by sneaking away from their home on the Beast’s magic white steed. Rather than kill her he compels her to stay, lavishes her with jewels and visits her every evening to ask if she will marry him, an offer she repeatedly declines. As time passes, Belle comes to appreciate the Beast’s tender side, and finds herself growing fond of him. He gives Belle a magical glove that allows her to travel instantly between the castle and her home. Her father rises up from his deathbed, and the Beast sinks into a final illness. When she begs him to rally, his dying words are wretched: “If I were a man, perhaps I could. But the poor beasts who want to prove their love can only grovel on the ground, and die.” The Beast may look “horrible” (his words), but he has a heart of gold, which stands in stark contrast to the two deceitful sisters and the greedy Avenant, who are far more beastly inside.

Though Cocteau wasn’t always pleased with the cinematography of Henri Alekan, the camerawork, with its contrast between country mansion and dreamy castle, is absolutely stunning. One of the film’s most memorable scenes puts Josette Day’s ballet experience to great effect as she glides along a corridor—she is being slowly pulled with an invisible pulley on a skateboard type device. Production and set designer Christian Bérard uses shadow and light to make the castle seem vast and alive.

The acting here is top notch. Day personifies the character of Belle. Jean Marais seems to become The Beast. Though Marais’ makeup job apparently took five hours to put on, the real strength in his performance comes from the emotions he’s able to express through his eyes.

Though the cinematographer, set designer and actors deserve some credit for the success of Beauty and the Beast, this film is truly Cocteau’s vision. He has called upon his artistic skills as a poet and painter to create a visually stunning motion picture.

For a film that’s more than sixty years old, Criterion’s 1080p Blu-ray looks quite good. Contrast is wonderful, black levels are surprisingly consistent, and detail quality is better than it’s ever been. Grain is handled very well, which serves to give the proceedings a filmic glow. Though there are some instances of dirt, and strobing occurs regularly, this transfer is still highly recommended.

The PCM 1.0 sound mix has been cleaned up as much as possible, but the rather primitive recording techniques available at the time prevent the soundtrack from offering much in the way of surround fidelity. There is no bottom end to the music of Georges Auric, and post synching gives that same flat resonance to the dialogue that it often does with films of this era. There is also some low level hiss that hasn’t been able to be removed. Thankfully, crackles, pops, and flutter are no problem at all.

Criterion provides the following special features:

  • Commentary by writer/cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling: Frayling discusses countless facts about the production. He discusses the actors, script, location, etc.
  • Commentary by film historian Arthur Knight: Knight’s commentary can be described as the more scholarly of the two, as most of his comments center on the effect Cocteau and Beauty and the Beast have had on filmmaking.
  • Stills Gallery: Over 100 photos, behind-the-scenes, studio portraits, and film stills.
  • Original opera written for the film by composer Philip Glass: An audio track specifically composed by Philip Glass for the movie. Watching with this soundtrack changes the mood of the film, and gives it a more whimsical vibe. Try it at least once.
  • Screening at the Majestic (26:41, 1080i)): A 1995 documentary that features interviews with actors Jean Marais, Mila Parély and cinematographer Henri Alekan, all recalling memories of working on the film. We also return to some of the locations used in the movie.
  • Interview with cinematographer Henri Alekan (9:15, 1080i): Alekan shares his memories of working with Cocteau. He also discusses various cinematography techniques used in the film.
  • Original 1945 trailer narrated and directed by Cocteau (4:03, HD)
  • Film restoration demonstration (4:07, 1080i)
  • 1995 restoration trailer (1:55, HD)
  • The enclosed 33-page booklet contains cast and crew lists, some stills from the movie, author Geoffrey O’Brien’s essay of appreciation on the film, Jean Cocteau’s introduction for the film in the 1947 press book for its U.S. release, an excerpt from Francis Steegmuller’s biography of Cocteau dealing with the production of the picture, and composer Philip Glass’ comments on the film, and his operatic score for it.