An Authoritative Fairy-Tale
In Jean Cocteau's film Beauty and the Beast (1946)1 a merchant rides off to a port town, to meet a ship which has come in after being given up for lost. He asks his three daughters what he can bring them; the two selfish ones demand expensive presents, while the third—a Cinderella heroine—asks only for a rose. This request creates a story.
The merchant becomes lost and is forced to spend the night in a castle full of cinematic enchantments. Arms swing out of the darkness, bearing chandeliers; sooty faces, sculpted into a fireplace, follow him with melancholy eyes; disembodied hands serve dinner at a table piled with food. The merchant falls asleep amid all this sinister but strangely benign animism. In the morning he prepares to leave. Almost as an afterthought, he picks a rose for Beauty, whereupon Beast steps forth from behind a trellis and says in an authoritative, carefully modulated voice: "You may eat my food, you may sleep in my house—but my roses are the thing most precious to me, and if you pick them you must die."
Why does the plucking of the rose offend Beast so mightily? We could invent answers but they would be irrelevant. The question "why" is not allowed to arise. Instead we have the calm assurance of Beast (played by Jean Marais) and the sense that the story must happen this way, simply because it could happen no other. Just as the merchant is forced to accept Beast's logic, so is the audience, until it has entered fully into the mimic-logic of the fairy-tale world.
The authority which compels us to believe in the fairy-tale (rather than, in Coleridge's phrase, to suspend our disbelief) is not very easy to pin down.
The fact remains that an arbitrary narrative can be quite as compelling as a narrative which attempts to explain itself, to proceed by way of coherent psychological motive or graspable philosophical import. Cocteau, as he worked on his film, came to feel the peculiar integrity of fairy-tale storytelling. Perhaps the most striking point about his cinematic realization of the tale is that he found ways to preserve its authoritativeness: to translate fantasy of this specific sort into cinematic form.
Everyone who has seen Beauty and the Beast will recall its great set-pieces: Beauty running up the stairs of Beast's mansion, when she has first arrived, to die in her father's place; Beast drinking at the waterhole, like an animal rather than a human being; Beauty and Beast, reconciled after the latter's transformation into a handsome prince, whirling off into a night sky.
The first thing to notice about these scenes is that in none of them does the technology call much attention to itself. The slow-motion sequence on the staircase works because Josette Day, who played Beauty, has been trained as a dancer; slow-motion, which reveals the least ungainliness in a person's movements, is for once an appropriate technique, just because it can show us something we might otherwise miss.
As for Marais lapping up the water—a scene filmed as matter-of-factly as possible—Cocteau writes that "he thrust his muzzle into [it], snorted, spat; he actually drank that disgusting water—I know no other actor who would have done that." Even the moment when "The Prince and Beauty depart, flying up into the clouds" is approached with a surprising amount of modesty; this is one of Cocteau's "tricks, but direct tricks, the only kind I like, tricks which I invent and over which I slave"—the upshot being that such marvels should seem effortless.
The authority of Beauty and the Beast grows initially from the artfulness of individual scenes. Cocteau is trading, on an essential strength of all cinema, that "the truth of moving images [can prevail] over everything else." This principle mastered, he succeeds in moving beyond it, in giving to the succession of scenes a carefully-designed character. Cocteau understood that Beauty's journeys back and forth between the castle and her home could give his movie, even more than the original tale, a rhythm of its own. The rhythm comes through best when we remember the two most elaborate of the scenes at the merchant's home.
In an opening sequence, Beauty's two sisters, dressed fit to kill, attempt to visit the local aristocracy. The sedan chairs are full of chickens. The carriers are drunk. The duchess will not see the sisters. Cocteau takes as much trouble with his chickens as he does with his magic chandeliers, so that the alternation between everyday and fantastic, frustration and wish-fulfillment, becomes all the more powerful.
This alternation, furthermore, acquires a wonderful complexity. When Beauty returns after her sojourn in the castle, the whole family (father excepted) is out on the lawn doing laundry. The characters, in fact, are lost in a real labyrinth of laundry, Cocteau never allowing us to survey the whole extent of this world of billowing sheets. At the climax of the scene, the bickering washermen (and women) observe a magnificent person coming across the lawn with their father. Cocteau notes "Josette's arrival in her princess's gown in the theatre of sheets devised by Marais [aside from his role as Beast, Marais also plays a good-for-nothing who is courting Beauty], who tucks up the first sheet like an Italian curtain and reveals the perspectives behind the bench." So the hidden metaphor of the scene comes suddenly clear. The labyrinth of wash is a theater. The absurd distractions of the everyday literally frame the return of Beauty.
The authority of Beauty and the Beast resides in the power of individual images or in the relationship among these images. In this story which is "true without realism," we feel the interpenetration of the fantastic and the everyday. Beyond these successes, however, there is a struggle going on, between the fairy tale's inherent tendency to resist allegory—to remain its inexplicable self—and the director's desire to tell a story with personal reverberations. This conflict affords a final clue to the perfect equilibrium of the completed film.
Cocteau, a spoiled and clever man, wants his art to reflect his life. He writes that when he was looking for a suitable location to film the scenes at the merchant's home, he happened upon "a small hillside manor" which turned out to be perfect, down to the last detail. "The man who lives in it looks like the merchant of our fairy tale, and his son told me, 'If you had come yesterday, you would have heard your own voice: I was playing my father some of your recordings of your poems.'" Retelling this anecdote a few years later, Cocteau improves upon it: now he discovers the manor by following the sound of his own voice, which turns out to be the recording. Cocteau wants to feel that he has created the location, much as he could have a poem or a novel. The writer used to exercizing power over words wants the same omnipotence in reality. He would command the sun if he could.
The desire for the film, in all its aspects, to echo his personality is a constant theme in Cocteau's journal. He develops a habit of writing about a sequence in Beauty and the Beast and then transforming it to an allegory of his own condition. This is particularly true when some scene in the movie recalls the skin disease from which he suffered at the time. One of the bad sisters looks in a mirror and sees a monkey. "The monkey was delightful," Cocteau notes, but he adds a few days later: "I look at myself in the mirror. Hideous. Which doesn't bother me at all. The physical, the material, no longer matter. . . . The true mirror is the screen, on which I can see the physical nature of my dream." His face and his dream remain closely connected nonetheless. Marais had to be made up four to five hours a day to play Beast, and "the removal of his makeup"—predictably—"resembles the torment of my bandages."
It pleases Cocteau to make over his illness, until it becomes a metaphor of artistic endeavor. The dangers in doing so are only too clear. The fairytale is not only the most mysteriously arbitrary but the most impersonal of literary forms, Its teller is an anonymous shaper of tradition rather than an artist in the romantic sense. Cocteau's image of himself as a lonely, suffering creator is thus in conflict with the aesthetic needs of the fairy-tale form. Some people have found such conflicts a conspicuous flaw in Cocteau's films—an objection the director often countered by pointing to the faithfulness with which he treated his sources (i.e., "it's someone else's story so how can it have me in it?")
With Beauty and the Beast, luckily, there is no need for this specious argument: the film really does take on the genuine impersonality of the fairy tale. This happens, in part, because even while he exploited his suffering, Cocteau never neglected craftsmanship. He discovered, moreover, that he could have his cake and eat it too; the fairy tale can transform artistic narcissism into a different impulse entirely. Halfway through the film, Cocteau observes that "I seem to be hidden behind the screen, saying: first this happened, and then this happened. The characters don't seem to live—they seem to be living a narrated life. Perhaps this was necessary." Which is to say: the film's authority turns ultimately on our sense of a narrator, and not a sensitive or a suffering narrator, either, but a voice telling us what happened, controlling the movements of heroes and villains alike. When he watched the finished film, Cocteau acknowledged that "it rejected me and lived its own life. In it I found only the memories attached to each piece of footage and the suffering it had cost me. I did not dream that others could be following the story it told—I believed them all plunged into my own imaginings." But he knows that the film exists apart from him.
One of Cocteau's favorite tales was "the King of
the Cats"—a tale he attributed to Keats. Keats is walking
in a forest when he sees four white cats and four black ones bearing a tiny coffin on their shoulders. Later he wants to communicate this experience to someone but is afraid he will not be believed. A friend swears to believe whatever Keats will tell him and so he finally relates the story—whereupon the cat dozing before the fireplace shoots up into the air and screams, "Then I am King of the Cats." Telling the story, it seems, creates in the most unexpected way the sense of authority and the possibility of belief. It is this effect that Beauty and the Beast, perhaps more vividly than any other film, conveys.
1. Beauty and the Beast can be seen on Channel 11 (Chicago) several times a year. Quotations in this column are from Professional Secrets: An Autobiography of Jean Cocteau, edited by Robert Phelps and translated by Richard Howard (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970), and Cocteau on the Film, translated by Vera Traill (Dover, 1972).