Anyone attempting another film based on La Belle et la Bête starts at a disadvantage. Despite whatever new twist or spin he or she has in mind, it will inevitably pale in comparison to Jean Cocteau’s version. It may have better special effects, possibly even the best, most advanced effects the world has ever seen, effects that makes James Cameron’s head spin, but it will still lack Cocteau’s secret weapon: Jean Marais’ eyes.
Our attention is directed towards his eyes from the Beast’s first appearance. A superimposed glow exudes menace and ferociousness before disappearing a few frames later, leaving before revealing the true light source, the fire of humanity hidden beneath fur, fangs, and a mane. The make-up is modest, though the wiggling ears are particularly adorable. It limits what Marais is able to convey with his face, but helped by cinematographer Henri Alekan’s lighting, is fashioned in a way that the viewer can’t help but be pulled in by the eyes. An attraction that is most apparent during a sequence where the Beast stumbles down the hall, looking upon his paws as they smoke.
Astonishment giving way to anger.
The anger carrying him into Belle’s room, only to be overtaken by dismay finding the room empty.
Both Marais’ and Josette Day’s performance are striking in their body consciousness. The film is filled with gestures of kindness, obedience, subservience, desire for acceptance, forgiveness. The way Marais carries his hands emphasize the emotion in his eyes, but they can do a fine job by themselves (and a well-placed light).
The film has the happy ending fairy tales often promise, but in Cocteau’s hands, it’s a very bittersweet one. Belle gets her prince, though she’s slightly let down to find he looks like Avenant. She brushes off the disappointment and away they go to live happily ever after. The viewer isn’t quite as lucky. He or she is left with the memory of that beautiful Beast, with nothing to fill the void. The Beast has been given back his face. His eyes no longer stand out. The fire’s been extinguished. A portion of his humanity lost.
The Details is a column that catches the small within the big, focusing on the individual elements that make cinema so expressive.