Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Art House in the Middle of the Street #11: Beauty and the Beast

There's no grand philosophical project behind Charge Shot!!!'s new feature. Jordasch's mom got him Janus Films' absolutely untouchable Essential Art House box set, and he's going to watch the whole thing. It's a behemoth set, collecting 50 films released since 1956 by one of the first distributors to bring honest-to-goodness world cinema to U.S. shores. The films contained in the collection serve as a crash course in world cinema, encompassing everything from major works of the French New Wave and the Italian Neorealist period to films from lesser-known corners of the filmmaking world, including Brazil and Poland. The collection is 50 discs, weighs 16 pounds, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses. Hit it.

As my quest to become the Watson of film knowledge grinds towards its inevitably disappointing conclusion, I've come to learn that French film isn't as easy to pin down as I first thought. The first French film I definitely remember seeing was Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless in a film class during my freshman year of college. (I never dated a girl cool enough to drag me to see Amelie in high school.) And, not to sound cliche, the movie just seemed so damn French to me. In its absolute commitment to cool detachment, Breathless seemed to embody everything I thought I knew about French cinema.

Viewed from a slightly wider angle, though, even the French New Wave didn't seem as homogeneous as I'd first thought. The films of Francois Truffaut were far sweeter and, though cutting-edge in their own way, much less experimental than Godard's films, which grew even more daring as his career progressed. Taking the so-called "Left Bank" filmmakers into account distorts the picture even further. From the hallucinatory slideshow of Chris Marker's La jetée to the sweet fancifulness of Agnès Varda to the steely-eyed grimness of Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows, France's nouvelle vague defied easy categorization.

Toss in the poetic realism of the Jeans, Vigo and Renoir, and the pioneering silent films of Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers, and my ability to arbitrarily pigeonhole an entire country comes into even further doubt. Let's not even mention Luc Besson, who might cause me to forfeit my very ability to be glib.

Oh Jean Cocteau. What am I going to do with you, and your magnificent, rapturous Beauty and the Beast? Stop generalizing? Maybe.

Poet, novelist, boxing manager (!), and defier-of-critics Jean Cocteau released his version of the classic French fairytale La Belle et la Bête in 1946. If you're keeping score, that's seven years after the release of Renoir's Rules of the Game and twelve years before Claude Chabrol's Le Beau Serge, widely credited as the first film of the French New Wave. So does Cocteau's hallucinatory adult fantasy bridge the gap?

Not really. The opening sequence, which shows a group of artists writing out the titles on a blackboard, seems to presage the conscious artistry of the nouvelle vague, and the rest of the movie goes for poetic over realistic.

Cocteau takes the essential elements of the version of the story written by Jeanne Marie Leprince de Beaumont, adds a subplot involving an arrogant boy from the local town trying to woo the heroine, and sprinkles in the magical servants' arms from a second story by Marie-Cathérine d'Aulnoy.

Belle (Josette Day) is, as in most tellings, a gorgeous, unfailingly noble young lass. Though the famous Disney version of the story from 1991 presents Belle as an only child, here she has two bitchy, Cinderella-esque sisters. The sisters primp and preen despite that the family has been poor for some time. Naturally, Belle's stuck with all the chores. But hark! A first-act deus ex machina comes in the form of a great fortune that Belle's father (Marcel André) will pick up the next day at the local port (I'd explain more, but that's really all you need to know). It's not to be, however, as Belle's brother has signed away his father's fortune to a man known as the "usurer" who looks like a cross between Merlin and a Nazi caricature of a Jew.

Meanwhile, after riding to the port, Belle's father finds out that his fortune has been seized by the usurer and is told to return home to wait for the repo men. The journey is, naturally, through a dark and stormy night, and he loses himself in the forest, only to stumble into a mysterious castle where the candles are all held up by disembodied arms. That castle belongs to the eponymous Beast (Jean Marais), who gets a tad miffed when Belle's father takes a rose from the Beast's garden. The Beast threatens to eat Belle's father, unless he sends one of his three beautiful daughters in his place. Naturally, Belle insists on taking her father's place and steals off into the night on the Beast's magical white horse.

I am a big, sad, gay French cat.
Here's where the movie really kicks into high gear, if you can refer to deliberately-paced fantasy as "high gear." As a love story, Beauty and the Beast isn't high art, but it's visually unparalleled. Slow-motion entrances are beyond rote at this point, but the first time Belle enters the Beast's castle is a revelation. The soundtrack drops out as Belle, her cloak billowing out behind her John Woo-style, gazes into the castle's inky blackness. The architecture of the place is fairly inscrutable; it's more negative space than not. Cocteau has assembled an impressionist castle: a staircase here, a portcullis bathed in white light there. The castle itself seems like it's fused with the surrounding forest, as if the scenery empathizes with the Beast's loneliness. After all, the Beast doesn't have any real friends; the forest (and the castle's invisible servant limbs) seem to be making up the difference.

The Beast himself is a technical marvel, especially for 1946. While Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion had a distinctly human face covered in pancake makeup and some extra jowls, the Beast has an entirely fuzzy face. His face is anything but static, though; we can see him grimace, smile, and, most of all, stare longingly through his gigantic feline eyes. He is a decidedly tragic character, and his affect communicates as much. Hearing him croak "Belle, Belle" over and over again adds to the effect

The Beast's courtship of Belle is a tad awkward, and it's not exactly clear what wins her over, especially considering that the Beast has kidnapped her, spies on her regularly, and enjoys sneaking into her room to smell her clothes. Maybe it's love via Stockholm Syndrome?

But the two grow closer and, in a really touching moment, the Beast allows Belle to return home for a week to visit her family. "You must return within a week," the Beast warns. "Or else I will die of grief." Aw, isn't that sweet?

Belle does return, and her love turns the hideous Beast into a beautiful, foppish Frenchman, who turns out to look just like Avenant, the local dumbass who hits on Belle constantly. The looks of the charmer with the heart of the Beast? Tres bien. Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast is a bit neat as a love story, but as a hallucinatory, stunningly gorgeous piece of fantasy, it's unparalleled.

Next Week - Yasujiro Ozu's Floating Weeds*

- Photos via Smoldering Rose and Disc Dish

*Yeah, I was supposed to watch this this week. I was on the road with only my Netflix instant account, and Floating Weeds wasn't on there.