“Give Me Back My Beast!”

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Greta Garbo reportedly called out those words at the ending of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946), when she first saw the film.

When the trapped Prince appears, after shedding his monstrous exterior, there is a strange sense of disappointment and loss, something that the film, beautifully, does not shy away from. The Beast, as played by Jean Marais, is such a visceral presence, so fearsome in aspect and yet so deeply emotional, that to see him as just a regular human (also played by Jean Marais) is upsetting. Something has been born, something has died.

Belle (Josette Day) stares up at the glimmering prince before her, and you can see the loss flickering in her eyes. She does not fall upon him with lusty gratitude that he is now “beautiful” and therefore worthy of her love. She stares at him, in awe at the magic that has unfolded, but it is clear that her feelings are mixed. Finally, she says, “I’ll have to get used to it.”

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This is profound.

The “happily ever after” is tempered by other emotions, and is one of the reasons the film is such a masterpiece. The ugliness is real, and because of that there is a complexity to it, that works on the viewer in surprising ways. Belle’s two sisters are horrifying creatures, dressed in gowns that make them look like demonic playing cards, or a Vermeer gone horribly wrong. They despise Belle, and flounce around haughtily, doing what they can to thwart Belle’s chance at happiness. The sisters are portrayed in a ridiculous manner, but they are symbolic of every hard-hearted person in the universe, every selfish rapacious impulse we have. Laugh at them at your peril. Their towering hats and gigantic puffed sleeves are absurd, and although it’s cartoon evil, it is also actual evil.

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Fairy tales can reflect our deepest fears, can express our most buried dreams. Fairy tales act as stand-in narratives for humans who cannot admit sometimes in our own hearts what is going on for ourselves. It may seem silly or childish to say, as a grown human, “I just want someone to whisk me away from all this, I want someone to save me”, but just because it is silly doesn’t mean that it is not one of the truest and most universal wishes of all.

It is also a universal truth in Fairy Tales that you should be careful what you wish for. Anyone who has ever been confronted by a genie coming out of a bottle will know that. Don’t be hasty with your wishes. Be very very specific. Try to think ahead, try to project yourself forward into the ramifications of your wishes. Otherwise, you’re screwed.

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‘In fairy-tales,’ said Gillian, ‘those wishes that are granted and are not malign, or twisted towards destruction, tend to lead to a condition of beautiful stasis, more like a work of art than a drama of Fate. It is as though the fortunate had stepped off the hard road into an unchanging landscape where it is always spring and no winds blow. Aladdin’s genie gives him a beautiful palace, and as long as this palace is subject to Fate, various magicians move it violently around the landscape, build it up and cause it to vanish. But at the end, it goes into stasis: into the pseudo-eternity of happy-ever-after. When we imagine happy-ever-after we imagine works of art: a family photograph on a sunny day, a Gainsborough lady and her children in an English meadow under a tree, an enchanted castle in a snow-storm of feathers in a glass dome. It was Oscar Wilde’s genius to make the human being and the work of art change places. Dorian Gray smiles unchangingly in his eternal youth and his portrait undergoes his Fate, which is a terrible one, a fate of accelerating deterioration. The tale of Dorian Gray and also Balzac’s tale of La Peau de Chagrin, the diminishing piece of wild-ass’s skin that for a time keeps Fate at bay, are related to other tales of the desire for eternal youth. Indeed we have methods now of granting a kind of false stasis, we have prostheses and growth hormone, we have plastic surgery and implanted hair, we can make humans into works of some kind of art or artifice. The grim and gallant fixed stares of Joan Collins and Barbara Cartland are icons of our wish for this kind of eternity.’
— A.S. Byatt, ‘The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye’

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The magic of Beauty and the Beast has a raw rough energy. It’s brutal. There are hidden rules beneath our ordinary human lives, iron ties that bind us to our Fates. I suppose the horrid sisters are lost souls, because they will never understand this, they are too busy jostling for position. They have no awareness outside of themselves. But for Belle … and her troubled father … they understand that they are not entirely in charge.

Perhaps that is why the magic presents itself to them in the first place.

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Belle lives a life of drudgery, heckled by her two sisters (who are far more monstrous, ironically, than the actual Beast). Despite her lowly position in her family, she is loved by her father (Marcel André), and relied on to do the cleaning and cooking. She actually has a purpose. Her brother and his goofball friend Avenant (also played by Jean Marais, in a trifecta of awesomeness from this magnificent actor) tease Belle, and it is obvious that Avenant has a crush on her. But will he be faithful? Will he value her and be true? Is he not too light-hearted about something as serious as love? Regardless of Avenant’s flaws, in this world, already, Belle stands out. The sisters may wear flashy puffy finery and flounce around trying to crash royal balls down the road, but Belle is the one desired. Belle is the one who has something valuable, a love of life, loyalty, helpfulness. When her father makes a journey (to beg his creditors to give him a break), he asks what Belle wants him to bring back. She thinks a bit and then says, “A rose.”

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She is laughed at by her brittle sisters for this (why not ask for jewels or a nice hat, you moron?), but it is that simple request that starts the Magic in motion. Gifts are important in fairy tales, but they always come with strings attached. You can have all that you desire, but you must be willing to pay the price. The price could be monetary, but more often than not, it is emotional. Her father gets lost on his way home, and finds himself in a dark wood filled with thrashing trees. There is thunder and lightning. He comes across a house in the woods (we never see it in its entirety, we just see the giant front doors). Needing shelter, he puts his horse in a nearby stable (the doors open of their own accord, as though they “know” that someone is there), and runs into the house.

The home of the Beast is one of the greatest sets ever created (or imagined). There is a long dark hallway, with human arms coming out of the walls holding candleabras. As the father walks down the hall, the candles spontaneously light (they played the footage backwards to get the effect). Two of the arms let go of the candleabras, which remain hovering in mid-air, and point the father to where he needs to go. At the end of the hallway is a small dining area, with a roaring fire in a fireplace. There are carved faces in the stone borders of the fireplace, and these faces are clearly alive: the eyes move, smoke comes out of the nostrils. A giant hairy hand pours the father a glass of wine.

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It is sheer enchantment. The effect is creepy, and yet there is no apparent danger. The father escapes the house and sees a glimmering rose in a bush by the front door. He thinks of Belle, he forgets all else, and hastens to clip the rose. It is then that the Beast emerges, furry and gigantic, snarling and growling, but also glorious in his Elizabethan velvets and stiff ruff, ferocious and angry at the theft of his rose. The Beast offers the father an exchange. (Remember: with true magic, there is always a catch.) He can have the rose, as well as his life, if he sends one of his daughters back to stay with him. If the father disobeys this request, he will die.

Think about that. Think about the impossibility of that choice. Magic, here, is not freeing. Not initially. It’s limiting, it binds you in. It acts as a vise. No way out. This, certainly, is the world the Beast lives in, trapped, as he is, in a form that the human race finds repellant. And anyone who comes into contact with the Beast must live by those rules as well. It’s not so much vengeance, on the Beast’s part, as it is an existential sense of isolation and aloneness. Won’t someone come into the Magic with him, because he is not allowed to venture out of it? The fact that Beauty and the Beast is not ONCE sentimental, even with that underlying theme, is a bit of a miracle.

The father returns home and presents Belle with the beautiful rose, but also confesses the deal he made with the Beast. He is tormented. Belle is terrified. Her sisters laugh hysterically at Belle’s doom.

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But Belle has a sense of duty. If this is what she must do to avoid his horrible fate, then so be it. She sets off on the white horse the Beast has sent for her (its name is Magnifique), and it takes her where she needs to go. All she has to do is whisper in its ear, “Go, go, go.” Such a gorgeous metaphor for the human condition, for our level of participation in our own fates, for the importance of letting go, of giving up control. Belle trusts. She also Loves. She loves her father, and that makes her strong.

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Speaking of letting go:

When Belle first enters the Beast’s house, her movements are captured in slow motion, giving her cape a dramatic sweeping flow, making time itself slow down. It’s like a dream, where you are filled with terror but you cannot move. She flies up the staircase, and finds herself in a long hallway with billowing white curtains. (It is a reminder of how little you need to do to create a surreal atmosphere.) Belle is propelled along the hallway, as if on a conveyor belt (Spike Lee dovetail!). Her fate is not in her hands.

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Belle’s first encounter with the Beast is so terrifying that she swoons to the ground in a dead-faint.

Now let’s talk about Jean Marais’ (and Jean Cocteau’s) Beast. We all know the story. And so, as with most oft-told tales, it is the “how” of the telling that really matters.

The Beast picks Belle up from the ground and carries her into his house. (I loved how Cocteau chose to film that moment: the camera peers through a fence in the foreground, so it is as though we are eyewitnesses to a crime taking place. The camera placement adds to the tension: it seems that the Beast may look up and see us looking at him.) In a spectacular scene, filled with Gothic eroticism and suspense, he is seen walking up the dark staircase, with Belle in his arms, as misty light streams through the dungeon-like grate on the right-hand side. It’s a potent and powerful image, frightening and yet sexy too. She is unconscious. The Beast, here, is acting as Fate. He holds her life in his hands (literally, metaphorically, the whole shebang). He carries her into her room, and as she goes through the doorframe, her dress changes, from simple peasant garb to a glittering princess dress. But she is conscious of none of it. He places her on the bed and in a breathtaking moment, he leans over her, his furry paws gently lying on her skirt. It seems that he could be about to ravish her. His body language suggests that, but also suggests the tension of holding back. She wakes up, and cringes in terror at the sight of him, and he backs off, saying to her, “Don’t look into my eyes.” He leaves the room.

So what are we left with? A Beast sensitive to the effect he has on others, certainly. When he emerged to face Belle’s father, he “played up” his ferociousness. But with Belle, he plays it down. He knows it is a losing battle, he cannot help his appearance.

The outside doesn’t match the inside.

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Belle’s lucky. Her outside matches her inside. She is a sensitive sweet soul, with a caring heart, and this is reflected in her appearance. However, one could also make the case that the shunning she receives in her own family is part of the general unfair-ness of judging people on their appearances. The sisters have flash and finery, they unfurl like peacock feathers. Belle’s beauty is subtle, soft, and unassuming. And yet what a heart she has, what capacity for love. Who can see that in her? Even Avenant, who crushes on her, doesn’t seem to recognize her special-ness. He just sees the beauty. He does not value the soul within.

But, as we shall see, the Beast does. That is ALL he values.

A routine develops. Belle does not see the Beast all day. Every night at 7 p.m., they meet for dinner. The hands serve them, the statues look on, alarmed, frightened, stunned, they have a variety of expressions. Who are they? Are they also trapped in forms not their own originally? Did the Beast do this to them, out of vengeance? There is one moment where a statue behind the Beast almost seems to be laughing, gleefully, at the Beast’s distress. It is hateful.

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But, in general, the hands are there to help. The hands do nothing scary. Once you get used to them, you can perceive their benign nature. They open doors, they anticipate your needs, they pour wine, and they dress Belle for dinner. Like the Beast, their outward aspect is quite frightening. Think of the scene in Repulsion, when arms emerge from a prosaic hallway and grasp at the terrified Catherine Deneuve. (Thank you, Kent, for that detail about Polanski being inspired by Cocteau for that scene.)

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But in Cocteau’s dream-scape, the arms are helpful. They do not move suddenly, they do not grasp or attack. They serve. It’s yet another indication that the magic here is real (it has flesh, it seems to be alive) and yet mysterious. One must accept the creepy arms as part of the landscape. One must trust them. They mean no harm.

In the same way, Belle grows to love the Beast.

In the first dinner scene, she sits at the table alone, frightened. He approaches from behind, resplendent in his velvet and jewels. He moves at an agonizingly slow pace. She, feeling his presence, does not look back at him, but literally quivers in what looks like ecstasy. A fine line between ecstasy and terror. He stands behind her chair. The tension is unbearable. She has picked up a gleaming knife, and she stares down at it, turning it this way and that. Again, the magic of the image: the knife is not a knife, and we could debate what it represents, although the phallic nature of it is probably obvious. She does not clutch the knife in a self-defensive manner, she does not look ready to plunge it into his side. She caresses it, stares down at it as if in a dream.

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And that is the moment. That is all that happens.

We tremble on the precipice of something, some gesture, some catharsis, and then we are left there, unsatisfied, and yet still anticipatory. Each scene operates in this manner. It’s sexy, but dark and brooding. There is much to dread. There is much to desire.

Late at night, Belle flees into the dark hallway. She is stirred by something, a sense, a noise. She hides behind a statue and sees the Beast, coming in from his nocturnal wanderings. His hands are smoking, from the killing he has done. He looks terrifying and he seems terrified of himself. He is in a daze, his hunger satisfied, perhaps, but he is groggy from over-satiation. And there is another hunger, a deeper one, that will never be satisfied. Belle watches, horrified, as he collapses against her door, caressing its solidity. He does not enter the room. That is forbidden. But he wants to go in. In that caressing gesture, done in a moment he thinks he is alone, he reveals his inner ache.

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Jean Marais had to sit in the makeup chair for five hours every day to create the Beast. The furry mask is flexible and expressive, and his eyes are always blazing from behind the fur. It is an extraordinary feat of stage makeup and prosthetics. Even though I know I am looking at a mask, nothing can convince me that the Beast is not real, that I am not looking upon an actual creature. Marais is not limited at all, despite the fact that we cannot see his entire face (and the face is the actor’s main tool of expression). It’s incredible. The Beast is scary, you get the sense of his innate power: physically, of course, he is quite intimidating, but emotionally as well. He is sitting on a tidal wave of rage, hurt, and hunger. All of this blazes out of his eyes, when we get a look at them. It is no wonder that he warns Belle not to look in his eyes. They give him away.

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But that’s true of all of us. The Beast is otherworldly, but he is a potent symbol of loneliness, of the desire for human connection, love, touch. Babies are forever marked if they are not hugged and cuddled in the first two years of their lives. This can also be true of adults. You are shunned long enough, and you internalize the shunning. You are not worthy of touch. You have been judged by the world as lacking in some essential human quality, your worth is called into question. Beauty and the Beast honors that very painful human truth. And it is honored by Jean Marais’ compassionate pained performance.

In another moment when the Beast does not know that Belle is watching, she sees him huddled by a stream, dipping his whole face into the water, taking big thirsty gulps. Their “dinner dates” do not involve him eating or drinking. That is his private business, done when he is alone. He is a hunter, a predator, alert to every movement in the forest that may turn out to be a meal. Belle watches the Beast take his great heaving gulps from the stream (and Marais is brilliant: his body language here is not human, it’s animalistic, he looks like an elephant in the wild, unselfconscious and utterly himself).

Belle watches. Something is dawning on her face. Tenderness. Pity. Seeing him in a private moment, seeing his open unabashed thirst, touches her. Perhaps she realizes the strength it takes for the Beast to hold himself back in her presence. At least that’s one of the things I imagine I see on her face in that moment, but there’s more to it than that. It’s the birth of love.

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As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, one of the most profound elements of Beauty and the Beast is that the love here dawns while the spell is still on the Beast. Love does not require physical beauty, although the entire culture has always told us otherwise. You are not only worthy of love when you have a beautiful form. Belle struggles with dismay when the spell is broken and the gorgeous Prince stands before her.

If the film gives us nothing else, it gives us a pure and lyrical vision of love unfettered from cultural norms and expectations, a love based on what is inside. Recognition reaches out to recognition. The Beast recognizes that the daughter’s love for her father is so strong that she will do anything to save his life. Belle does not operate from selfishness, and her actions are eloquent. But the Beast is cautious, too. She could not feel the same way about him that he feels about her.

He underestimates Belle. Everyone does.

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There are some incredible magical sequences, some involving the enchanted mirror in Belle’s room. When you look in it, you see things as they really are. Belle gets a vision of her father lying in bed, tossing and turning, dying. Later, when she returns home (with the help of a magic glove given to her by the Beast: put it on your hand and it will transport you to your destination), she has the mirror with her. The sisters look in the mirror: one sees a withered old crone, and one sees a jibbering little monkey. It’s hysterical. The mirror reveals the true essence of things. When Belle puts on the glove in the Beast’s house, she then finds herself back at home, emerging from the wall, a phenomenal effect.

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Racing to her father’s death bed, she assures her father that the Beast is kind, there is nothing to be afraid of. She must return as soon as she can, but for now, she is here at his side. Tears fall from her face, turning into glistening jewels in the father’s hand. Another amazing effect. A tear seeps out of her eye and seems to transform, on her cheek, into a teardrop-shaped gem. Wonderingly, the father peels it off her face. Belle is fully in the enchantment, and her heart is torn. The Beast did not want to let her go. But sensing her distress about her father’s condition, he allowed it. Belle loves her father, but she now loves the Beast, too, with a desperation that is heartrending to behold. When she returns to the Beast’s house, she cannot find him. She runs through the magical house, bursting out of the front doors, calling into the empty air, “MY BEAST!”

I dare you to listen to the way she screams that line and not be moved.

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The story of the filming of Beauty and the Beast is fascinating, and there are published journals by Cocteau about the entire process. Filmed in the wake of WWII, in the middle of a decimated France, the film has in it a vision of hope, of love fulfilled, of possibility, that is all the more poignant when you realize the context in which it was filmed. It takes great strength to believe in love, in the midst of such devastation. It takes great moral courage.

Like anything that is perfect, analyzing its parts is problematic. Because nothing can quite capture the magic: language certainly can’t. It’s like looking at a rainbow against a lowering black sky. Poets can sometimes capture the meaning behind such a moment of perfection, but more often than not the magic is lost in translation.

Here, the magic is not.

The film shimmers with it, glimmers and glows with it, breathes with it, exudes it.

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Ugliness is not to be feared, shunned, or despised. It is to be loved. A difficult concept, and one human beings struggle with mightily.

In the final incredible shot, when Belle and her now beautiful Prince fly up into the dark sky, we are left with mixed feelings. We have been through so much. The beauty underneath, the beauty of the Beast’s soul, was always there. We felt it. We saw it. Even in his most terrifying moments, with smoke burning off of his claws. How will love now translate when his form is so changed? Can we love beauty as much as we have come to love ugliness? Belle doesn’t seem sure.

But, as she always has done, she trusts. Even with her trusting of Fate, she is still honest. “I will have to get used to it,” she says.

So will we.

I’m with Greta Garbo, though. I want my Beast back.

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6 Responses to “Give Me Back My Beast!”

  1. Kent says:

    The blood of a poet… the mystery of black and white flowing through Jean Cocteau’s veins and his resulting ventricular fibrillations.

  2. Sylvia says:

    I loved this movie so much when I first saw it. It has the mysterious ability of capturing how it feels to read the story and “dream” it to yourself. So often movies fall short of the pleasure of the actual book, but this one made me feel the miracle of telling a story in movie form – the extra dimension it can give.

    And, of course, I love reading your essay mixed with the stills. Thank you again.

    • sheila says:

      Sylvia – yes! so often films don’t get “magic” right. They are either too tricky – or they rely too much on effects – but the image of Belle being propelled along that hallway without her legs moving … I mean, that actually FEELS like a dream. Amazing accomplishment, so simply done!

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Sheila, moved to Paris at almost 5, and Jean Marais lived in our building. We became friends. Sounds strange, I know. Had no idea who he was, just a very kind neighbor. I still remember serving him “tea” one afternoon, along with the concierge, in the interior courtyard of our building. He was so patient. Now I look at the pictures you included and realize how absolutely gorgeous he was. Oh, right, great movie!

    • sheila says:

      Oh, Melissa – what a cool story!! I am so glad he was nice. :) He had such a beautiful soul as the Beast!

      Love the glimpse of him you give here. Thrilling.

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