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Feature Review #7
The Only One You Need
Beauty & the Beast(DVD)
There hasn't been a better filmed version of Beauty & the Beast either before or since this film.

Most people more-or-less know the story -- of course, if all you know is the Disney version, then you don't really know the story at all -- the well-to-do merchant who loses everything, his one last chance to recoup that falls through, the journey through the spooky forest that leads to the magic castle, the rose the merchant picks for his daughter, the angry Beast who demands the merchant's life, Beauty's return to the Beast's castle in her father's place, ... and so on.

But you really don't KNOW the story till you see this film and let Cocteau make it clear for you.

Done on an obviously shoe-string budget, brilliantly applied, with camera-work and incredibly simple but effective "special effects" that truly enhance the story without calling undo attention to their own cleverness, with beautiful costume and makeup designs adding even more, this film is simply a visual treat. (An example of the simple-but-effective effects is Beauty's return to her father's home -- the actress stepped backward through a paper "wall"... and they ran the film backward.)

[This film is/was definitive enough that when the cable teevee Faerie Tale Theatre series did B&B, they basically did a 60-minute remake in color of this film, including most of the visual touches, especially the Beast's makeup, costume and body language.]

Jean Marais is incredibly handsome as  Beauty's no-good suitor Avenant and as the transformed Beast -- and his performance as the Beast (despite the incredible makeup and costume) is masterful.  He has a presence and elegance of movement that make the Beast even larger and more powerful and ominous.

Josette Day, as Beauty, is almost as beautiful as the story says Beauty is, and she plays to and off Marais in a way that makes the scary scenes scarier and the romantic and tragic scenes more powerful.  Her beauty is a peasant beauty, but none the less striking for that; her strong nose and cheekbones and pointed chin make a face that is equally appropriate and striking whether framed by a house-cleaner's kerchief or by the fantastic head dresses that the Beast's castle provides her to wear.

As in any good version of the story, the Beast's castle is as much a character as Beauty's sisters or her father -- with the chandeliers shaped like human arms that swing outward from the wall and flare into light as you pass, the living faces in the fireplace decorations, the way in which Beauty, not taking a step of her own, is conveyed in a smooth glide past billowing curtains at great windows to the door of her room, which speaks and tells her it is her room.  (And nary a singing teapot or candle holder to be seen, thank goodness.)

All of these effects are done so brilliantly , essentially with great ingenuity substituting for budget, that one simply marvels at them -- at the way in which a simple peasant dress is magically transformed to a beautiful gown as the Beast carries the fainting girl through the doorway of her room, for instance -- and doesn't think until later (if then) about how they were accomplished.

Beautiful, dreamlike and entrancing.

Actually, the only real low point in the film is the ending, which, except for the revelation of the Beast's nature, is a let-down no matter what version you watch or read.*  (Greta Garbo is said to have watched the Hollywood premiere of this film and said  at the end "Give me back my Beast.")

I saw it at the World Science Fiction Convention in Cleveland in 1966 when i was seventeen, and i have been in love with it ever since.

*Except for the Disney travesty, which begins with what is properly the punchline of the real story and thus has to invent essentially a new -- and inferior -- story.