Beauty and the Beast -- French film director Jean Cocteau is a true poet of the filmmaking world. Like other, more recent, movie directors like Terrence Malick ("The Tree of Life") who are responsible for bringing a rare level of visual poetry to the movie screen, Cocteau was a true artist, combining an irrepressible imagination with an appreciation for fantastic imagery to create wondrously beautiful movies.
The acclaimed filmmaker’s first movie from 1930 was called "The Blood of a Poet," and it simultaneously announced a great talent as well as perfectly defining his personal style. This experimental film vividly displayed Cocteau’s appreciation for the possibilities that the young medium of cinema held, and exploited them with a complete disregard for conventional notions of movie storytelling. The result was a masterpiece that has influenced generations of filmmakers.
Cocteau further explored the artistic possibilities of moviemaking in 1946’s "Beauty and the Beast" ("La Belle et la Bete"). Taking his taste for avant-garde filmmaking and experimentation and grafting it onto an 18th century story by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, the director succeeded in creating the most accessible movie of his career.
Obviously made in the days before computer-generated effects dominated movie-making, Cocteau relied on camera tricks and optical effects to create a more primitive, and more organic, form of magical imagery that is all the more charming in its level of creativity.
Candelabras held by moving limbs and tears that turn into diamonds are just some of Cocteau’s visual tricks on display here that only add to the film’s sense of child-like wonder. It can easily be seen as influencing filmmakers like Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam who are equally interested in creating vast, unique cinematic worlds full of fantasy and imagination.
Cocteau also seems to have sought out some of France’s most baroque and elegant architecture to put on display here, adding to the film’s level of artistry and fairy tale mood. It is indicative of the great interest the director obviously took in every aspect of the images he displayed onscreen in order to perfectly capture just the right atmosphere. This includes his devotion to costuming, as the intricate detail of the costumes here is a work of art in and of itself. Meanwhile the Beast’s make-up here is quite exquisite, fearsome without being repulsive, and allows actor Jean Marais’ emotional expressiveness to shine through.
The director’s preference for telling stories in images rather than words also means the film has little in the way of dialogue, creating a movie that speaks universally and easily bridges any language barriers. For that reason, it becomes easy to merely get lost in the beautiful imagery and magical atmosphere on display as the fantastic story unfolds.
This is no sanitized version of a fairy tale either, with darker themes running throughout the film culminating in an ambiguous ending that Walt himself probably would have rejected outright during a Disney board meeting. For that reason, "Beauty and the Beast" is more akin to recent movies like "Pan’s Labyrinth" (2006) and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" (2012) -- movies that show an equal appreciation for poetic imagery and a fairy tale atmosphere while refusing to turn away from the darker side of human existence.
It all culminates in a classic film that, despite being made more than 50 years ago, retains its emotional power today, and continues to prove to be as moving as it is memorable. Along with that other early masterpiece, Jean Vigo’s 1934 film "L’Atalante," "Beauty and The Beast" also competes for the title of "the most beautiful movie ever made."
"Beauty and the Beast" is rated G and is playing at the Redfern Arts Center on Brickyard Pond at Keene State College for one week only starting Dec. 7. Visit www.keene.edu or call 603-358-2160 for showtimes.
Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and a regular columnist for the Arts & Entertainment section.