Monday, 24 February 2014

Jean Cocteau's La Belle et La Bete

It was wonderful to see Cocteau’s the BFI’s touring restoration of La Belle et La Bete on the big screen yesterday. It’s one of those films which has been with me since my teens, and every time I see it reminds me of previous cinema viewings, at different points of my life – at the Scala, The Everyman or on one or other of the NFT screens. Your response to beloved films changes and develops over the years (as, hopefully, you yourself change), so you see it in a different light each time. Something about their basic appeal remains the same, though. I’ve always loved Cocteau’s dream castle, and in particular the living statues and animate arm torch sconces and curtain raisers. The arms move with docile submission to light the passage of those passing, whilst the eyes of the statues and caryatids follow the to and fro of the regular evening exchanges between Beauty and the Beast, or anxiously track Beauty’s restless pacing as she awaits the Beast’s arrival. The white statue in Belle’s bedroom, which balances a circular candle-bearing plate on its head like a heavy halo, looks on with a small, smug smile of quiet schadenfreude as the Beast enters in a state of dishevelled distress, driven to look on Belle only to find she’s not there. This alabaster feminine statue, whose amusement makes it clear that the Beast has invaded territory in which he is not master, is contrasted with those in other parts of the castle, which are male and carved of darker, granitic stone. Male and female territorial zones are thus demarcated.

It’s a sacred female space which is revealed to be the source of the Beast’s power, as well as the dumping ground for his glittering but useless treasure. This forbidden grove is contained within an ivy-cloaked glass-house, from the roof of which radiant light shafts (light which we mentally shade an amber gold). The grove is guarded by the statue of Diana, and when the glass is broken by the oafish men who would steal the Beast’s treasure and destroy his power (which are her treasure and power), she comes to life and punishes their transgression with an arrow which brings death and transformation: the revelation of the bestial nature beneath the toothsome smile and honeyed words. The Beast, of course, undergoes a similar transformation; his lifeforce is restored and an instant dandyish countenance and costume springs (with a visually literal figurativeness) into being. It’s always seemed a rather disappointing conclusion. Belle has started to love her Beast, and there seems a definite hesitancy and regret that he has disappeared so suddenly. But she decides to play along with this new pantalooned and beruffed creature, who insists that he is one and the same beast who gave his heart and life to her. Perhaps she is thinking that, in time, she can bring the dear, savage old Beast out again. And they can return to live in the enchanted castle in the forest, figures of fearful myth and awful warning, and so untroubled by tiresome strangers, challenging, calculating suitors and squabbling socialite sisters. And he can lay his furred head in her lap and, eyes shining brightly as he gazes up at her with utter, unswerving devotion, lap up water from the cupped grail of her hands.

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