Recently I was viewing and reviewing “Charlie’s Letters”, a new feature length film by up and coming talented filmmaker Elliott Hasler. Hasler’s style of filmmaking, his use of close focus, short-takes, hand held rapid changing angle and “special effects” accomplished, successfully on a shoe-string budget and with great simplicity, reminded me of someone. At first I couldn’t bring it to mind. Then the July 2018 edition of Empire Magazine carried a piece on Jean Cocteau’s inspiring and original La Belle et la bete. That was it. Here we have the reason Disney took so long to make their version. Here we have an exceptional filmmaker bringing to the screen a beautiful uplifting film to reassure the French Republic.
Picture, if you will, France in 1946. A third of the country destitute, a third starving, a third homeless, industry and the social fabric of the nation just beginning to rebuild their nation and country. Enter Jean Cocteau with a mind to bring to the screen an ancient story retold by Mme de Villeneuve in 1740 largely in the form we see today. The film, restored in 2008 by Sky Arts, British Film Institute, Fullimage and Studio Canal with excellent film notes by Marina Warner, is a joy to behold and a pillar of modern cinema history. From the first chalk drawn blackboard credits to the last transformation scene where the beast becomes the prince (although Belle is not over-the-moon with the change!) we have a film that is a pillar of modern filmmaking.
Filled with original touches, clever use of performers and incredible use of drapes, flowing robes, elaborate costumes, effective and straightforward props, for example, see the hand held candle sticks move and switch on as Belle passes them. It is spellbinding.
Of course in this age where the conduct of Men throughout the industry has come under such close scrutiny there are throw-backs to the 1700 and a World where Power and Control, authority and ownership of the wheels of industry was vested entirely in Men and where Woman struggled for any kind of control in their lives. As Warner’s sleeve notes make clear “Aristocratic Frenchwomen like Mme D’Aulnoy, Mme de Murat and Villeneuve created a vogue for fairytales….They were reinventing the form as a vehicle to attack conventions of their day…”. So Beauty seeks to exercise some control over what she will and wont do and the behaviour of The Beast, although drawing the sympathy of Beauty, is appalling, gross and ill mannered. Although the behaviour is justified by another character who damns the general behaviour of Men “Lots of husbands are hairy and horned”. This was true then and is true now, the messages of La Belle et la bette”. echoing down the years.
“La Belle et la bette” has survived more than seventy years and is so much greater than a simple quaint reminder of a cinema style that is gone. It is a lesson in how to use a good script, good character actors and take an almost non-existent budget but with original special effects and make something special. In an age where worldwide communication is instant the film is a lesson for independent filmmakers today. Provided you have the skill to use the opportunities available. The fact that you can does not mean that you will. Then you have to be able to do it successfully and consistently. Any would be Jean Cocteau could very usefully run this film through a few times. The film remains a supreme lesson.