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Blu-ray: La Belle et la bête | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: La Belle et la bête

Blu-ray: La Belle et la bête

Iconic, influential cinematic fairytale, perfect for children of all ages

The eyes have it; Jean Marais and Josette Day

Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la bête had been planned as a slice of wartime escapism, a distraction from the privations of war. The film was also a chance for Cocteau to give his male lead Jean Marais a less overtly sexy role than his fans were used to, though there’s still a lot of smouldering going on, some of it literal. Many would argue that this is the greatest cinematic fairytale, and it looks stunning in this high definition restoration (its first appearance in HD in the UK). Everything works here; Cocteau’s unfussy, poetic screenplay brilliantly served by Christian Bérard’s designs and an attractive Georges Auric score.

Repeated viewings underline the darkness of the opening scenes; for all the shocks and surprises lurking in the Beast’s castle, the real horrors are to be found in normal life. Josette Day’s feisty Belle contends with bullying sisters, a brutish suitor and a financially inept father (Marcel André). His theft of a rose for his favourite daughter incurs the wrath of Marais’s beast, prompting Belle to take her father’s place. Belle’s arrival still thrills, inching down a dark corridor where the candelabras are held by disembodied human hands (pictured below). She arrives at a dining table where the drinks pour themselves, surrounded by faces peering expressively from the walls. Enter the hirsute, toothsome Beast, far edgier than Dan Stevens’ recent Disney incarnation. He terrifies and thrills Belle, her shivers suggesting amorous excitement rather than fear. Marais’s expressive eyes convey fear and frustration, his exhortation that Belle shouldn’t look into them a red rag to a bull.

The Beauty and the BeastThis is a delicious monochrome phantasmagorica, thrilling and chilling. Cocteau’s special effects hold up beautifully, whether Belle is gliding through a cloister or magically transporting herself back to her home via an enchanted glove. Her presence revives her ailing father but enrages her pantomimic wicked sisters, and there’s a lovely moment where she attempts to give the Beast’s pearl necklace to one as a gift. The finale is inevitable but no less satisfying for it, the villainous Avenant (Marais, again) punished by an animated statue before the Beast’s abrupt transformation. Belle is literally swept off her feet (“I don’t mind being frightened with you…”) before the pair fly off into the sunset.

This BFI release’s bonus features make a blinding case for continuing to buy physical discs instead of streaming. An extended documentary traces the film’s extended production history and points out how much the pin-sharp visuals owe to the work of Vermeer and Gustav Doré (Cocteau thought that “make-believe didn’t have to be fuzzy”). Christopher Frayling’s affectionate, informative commentary is worth listening to, and the extended booklet is a joy to read. Oddest and funniest is a mind-boggling 1938 stop-motion adaptation of Barbe Bleue. Made in lurid colour by René Bertrand and his young children, it’s a quirky treat. The beheadings and grisly injuries are as surprising as the brilliantly animated crowd scenes, all realised 60 years before the advent of CGI.

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