Sunday, October 10, 2010

Jonathan Williams on Cocteau's "La Belle et la Bête"

Josette Day as Beauty, and Jean Marais as The Beast, in Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête.

When weather turns cold and thoughts run to darker recesses of the psyche, the chills of a Halloween season must not be far away. I am wary of the current desire to be scared out of our wits 365 days a year in reading and at the movies -- like much else these days, easy availability of things once reserved for a turn in its own season, like Halloween, makes for duller thrills when the time is right.

Last night I saw
The Exorcist -- for the first time. As my host burst out when I told him I had never seen it, "You've never seen The Exorcist! What the hell have you been watching?" My excuses must have seemed weak and weary: looking back to the early 1970s there was Fellini and Scorcese, Coppola, Altman ... Last Tango in Paris ... so yeah, I skipped on seeing The Sting. The Exorcist? Not that either. Meekly I offered Fantastic Planet and he drew a blank. No, he hadn't seen that one. Cue the Exorcist credits.

I'm glad I saw it, but I watched it as a film fan would watch Bela Lugosi in
Dracula. It was mildly interesting but thoroughly filled with hoke, and just as theatrically staged for maximum audience chills as "I never drink ... wine" was for an earlier age. I admired Friedkin's craft -- wonderful stuff, absolutely top rate, he can make a bed shake like no other -- but the story -- pffft. As a recovering Catholic, maybe I just have never been scared of the Devil or his minions. Who can say.

There are other movies, though, that continue to thrill in a Halloween season. Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete, from 1946, is one. No blood or gore or pea-soup in this black-and-white telling of Beauty and the Beast, but a spectacular and haunting film to this day. Here's Jonathan Williams, sage of the Jargon Society and Scaly Mountain, North Carolina, describing one of my favorite seasonal films. He begins by roundabout route, with the admission that it’s dangerous, going back to films you adored when you were 18 or 20, and then meanders his way to the subject by way of one film that -- to put it discreetly -- has at least stood the test of passing young Williams's time. When he gets to the wind-up, it's great to read his words on Cocteau's incomparable visual poetry. I might not ever make time for The Exorcist again in Halloween-time, but La Belle et la Bête will forever be on the schedule as one of my favorites. Williams writes:

... The thing is, however, La Belle et la Bête, though it creaks a little technically and must have been made with hardly any budget at all, remains as compelling a fairy tale as ever. It is “Once upon a time” from beginning to end, childhood’s open sesame. Cocteau kept a journal of the film and it’s been sitting on the shelf, essentially unread, for 46 years because my French has never developed past knowing the names of foods and drinks. With a dictionary and the investment of 15 minutes of my friend Tom Meyer’s time, we can offer you this paragraph from Cocteau:

“My method is simple: I let the poetry alone; it comes on its own. It can only be called untameable. I’ve tried to build a table for the poetry. And for you, then, to eat there, to talk to it, or build a fire with.”

One would love to see the Beast’s chateau dans le fôret, but Cocteau’s journal makes it unclear to me whether it is named Rochecorbon in the Touraine, or Raray, north of Paris near Senlis. Most of the book appears to be about visits to doctors and dentists between rare moments on the set.

What one remembers with astonishing clarity are some of the great visual moments: the hall of candelabra held by human arms; the living caryatids with fiery eyes and smoke coming from their nostrils; the balustrade of animals in the Beast’s park; the door that tells Beauty that it is hers; the mirror that tells her it is hers alone. I have never forgotten the magic password: “Va ou je vais, le Magnifique, Va—va—va!” And the wonderful scene where Beauty’s wicked sisters, Felicie and Adelaide, hanging up the sheets on the washline, are dressed in great hats that make them silly goose girls. Henri Alekan‘s cinematography is luminous. You can’t hear much of Auric’s music on the soundtrack, but what’s there is very good.

Diana, goddess of the hunt, in La Belle et la Bête

Josette Day is enchanting as Beauty, and Jean Marais convincing as the poor Beast. He is at his best when he reveals to Beauty the secrets of his magic power in truly incantatory fashion: “My horse, my glove, my golden key, my mirror, and my rose!” It’s a real downer when he changes into Prince Charming—so big and butch, straight from the pages of the French equivalent of Physique Pictorial. But, that’s the look Cocteau and Genet liked in those dim days of yore. Treat your imagination to 90 minutes in “ce vague pays des contes de fées.”

No comments: