Commentary Track

Beauty and the Beast (1946)

This week on The Spectator Film Podcast…

La Belle et La Bête (1946) 4.10.20
Featuring: Austin, Maxx

Commentary track begins at 20:27

— Notes —

  • We watched the Criterion Collection Release of La Belle et la Bête for this week’s episode. It’s an amazing release, with lots of tremendous bonus features and two commentary tracks. Perhaps one of Criterion’s best releases.  Also available on the Criterion Channel.
  • “Cocteau, Jean” by Richard Misek from Senses of Cinema — Great Director profile from Senses of Cinema
  • Jean Cocteau and His Films of Orphic Identity by Arthur B. Evans — While this book foregoes discussion of La Belle et La Bête to focus on Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy, it remains an insightful introduction to anyone looking to learn more about Cocteau’s films. Other books on Cocteau can be weighted down with obscurity, but this one’s a very reliable entry point for those looking to learn more.
  • Fantasy Film: A Critical Introduction by James Walters — I haven’t finished this book at the time of posting, but so far it’s a terrific resource of information that’s slightly lacking in insight; perhaps a light recommendation for those interested in the fantasy genre. That being said, Walters discusses society’s ideas of the spiritual and supernatural and how they were influenced by the advent of film in the early 20th century. This portion of the book can easily be connected to our conversation of Jean Cocteau’s poetic filmmaking approach as “seance photography,” and may be worth reading for anyone interested to learn more.
  • “Gender Politics – Cocteau’s Belle is not that Bête: Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946)” by Susan Hayward from French Film: Texts and Contexts (Ed. Susan Hayward & Ginette Vincendau) — Here’s the link to French Film: Texts and Contexts, which features Susan Hayward’s Lacanian analysis of  the film. Given the impressive list of contributors to this book, it’s probably an interesting read and may show up again as a resource for future episodes.
  • The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films by Jack Zipes — Only read the chapter on Beauty and the Beast stories so far, but this book is fantastic. Wonderful insight into the historical lineage of the story in addition to discussion of the film adaptation itself. We’ll likely be using this book as a resource for future episodes. We’ll include some worthwhile passages below:
    • “The issue at hand in [The Beauty and the Best fairy tale] is fidelity and sincerity, or the qualities that make for tenderness, a topic of interest to women at that time, for they were beginning to rebel against the arranged marriages or marriages of convenience… and Mme Le Prince de Beaumont did an excellent job of condensing and altering the tale in 1756 to address a group of young misses, who were supposed to learn how to become ladies and that virtue meant denying themselves. In effect, the code of the tale was to delude them into believing that they would be realizing their goals in life by denying themselves” (227-28)

    • “There is a false power attributed to Beauty as a virtue. By sacrificing oneself, it is demonstrated, the powers that be, here the fairies, will reward her with a perfect husband. The most important thing is to learn to obey and worship one’s father (authority) and to fulfill one’s promises even though they are made under duress. Ugliness is associated with bad manners like those of her sisters. The beast is not ugly because his manners are perfect. Beauty and the Beast are suited for one another because they live according to the code of civility. They subscribe to prescriptions that maintain the power of an elite class and patriarchal rule” (229).

  • Beauty and the Beast: Diary of a Film by Jean Cocteau — Here’s the link to Ronald Duncan’s translation of Cocteau’s renowned on-set diary. Tremendous book, providing Cocteau’s commentary on the famously troubled production. While this Internet Archive version is free, I believe this specific translation may currently be OOP.
  • Jean Cocteau by James S. Williams — This book was our main resource in the discussion of the film. As is the case with most of the books in this French Film Directors series, this serves as both a reliable introduction to Cocteau’s work, biography, and other significant pieces of scholarship on the subject. That said, Williams has a slight tendency toward obscurity and hyperbole in his evaluation of Cocteau’s work. Despite its strengths, this book likely isn’t a one-stop shop resource on Cocteau’s work, and even more so in reference to the question of his collaboration with Nazi and Vichy institutions in occupied France.
    • “Whatever field and medium he was working in, however, Cocteau always considered himself a poet ‘la poesie’…as opposed to simply ‘the poetic’ as conventionally understood” (5)

    • “Further, Cocteau insisted on cinema’s ceremonial aspect and the fact that when films are projected we receive phantom images and words emanating as if from beyond the grave” (15)

    • “[Documentary-style filmmakers] were the greatest poets for Cocteau precisely because they were not seeking the poetic. With Cocteau there is always the giddy sense of the marvelous waiting to be revealed, and he had an impish delight in discovering the strange, unheralded forms delivered up by the machine. A great film is an accident, a banana skin under the feet of dogma he once quipped with utter seriousness, and he considered his role in the process as merely that of an intermediary or conductor agent” (15).

    • “Cocteau’s highly materialist approach to film practice provides it ultimately with a metaphysical aim to transfigure the real… these were real objects transformed by cinematic time and are now projected visions of both sublime beauty and horror… The cinema is linked intimately, and tragically, to a consciousness of death… For Cocteau, any filmic image, however fictional and in whatever style, has the documentary force of a newsreel since it has recorded reality and is thus a direct despatch from the real… The special effects in Cocteau’s films, a combination of mechanical artifice and visual mirage, are ‘true’ because they were witnessed in the here and now by the actors and crew and duly recorded by the camera” (17).

    • “[Cocteau’s] ideal version of cinema is conceived as a direct engagement with the individual viewer who ‘collaborates’ with the film to make his or her own… Indeed, Cocteau’s personal mythologies (statues, mirrors, doubles, etc.) almost always resist the standard codes of representation and exegesis and guard the imaginary against his sworn enemy, banal symbolism. Snatched as if from death, each instance of sound and image in his work is nothing less than an apparition in the spontaneous act of becoming” (19).

  • “Queer Margins: Cocteau, La Belle et la bête, and the Jewish Differend” by Daniel Fischlin from Queer Theory and the Jewish Question (Ed. Daniel Boyarin, Ann Pellegrini) — This link will bring you to Queer Theory and the Jewish Question, which features the magnificent essay Daniel Fischlin we referenced during the show. This essay seems to have become a major piece of criticism in the discussion of this film, as Fischlin examines the link binding the Queer and Jewish Other in French society at the time alongside some discussion of Cocteau’s biography.
    • “…the story of La Belle et la bête nonetheless plays out in microcosm a version of the alien’s relation to a normative culture. La Belle et la bête‘s drama has acute national resonances: nation functions, however illusorily, as the norm against which alien otherness is measured. Those resonances are rendered more affective through the gendering of national vulnerability in the figure of Belle, the beauty threatened by the beast of otherness… Cocteau’s film represents those same values in terms of the racist and classist paranoias that produced a scapegoat for Nationalist Socialist dogma” (366-67).

    • “…La Belle et la bête bears further examination for the wau in which the film articulates a postwar vision that simultaneously effaces any trace of the war from its visual images while nonetheless symbolically encoding the underlying logic of otherness upon which the war was predicated. The antisemitic unconscious of the film circulates paranoia about the contaminant presence of the other all the more effectively because it is encoded at the level of a textual unconscious. The film uses an amalgam of symbolic techniques to achieve this effect, including its reinscription of the Jews it figures in its margins, its recuperation of a putatively classic French fairy (Volk) tale, its bourgeois epiphany in which the Beast is transformed into the prince, who looks just like Belle’s village suitor (she gets it both ways), thus implicitly restoring the merchant and his family to the class advantage they have lost, its use of lead actors with prominent Aryan features, and its complex erotic dimensions, framed as they are by the queer margins of Cocteau’s gaze forming and deforming the body of his lover through manipulation of the camera’s gaze” (374).

    • “The film… simultaneously articulates disidentification with that ethnic otherness even as the exotic (queer) link in the signifying chain of Jew and homosexual is internalized, both by the film’s signifying structures and the personal circumstances circulating around Marais and Cocteau’s relationship as lovers. The move ironically reinstates the Jew’s presence in the metonymic form of queer other even as the representation of male Jews in the film enacts Cocteau’s disidentification of homosexuality and Jewishness. Disidentification resolutely reinstates identification” (376).

    • “… [the beast] is both an ambiguated ideal (the prince as heteronormative and queer) and the threatening lover (Avenant) by virtue of being played by the same actor. The Beast condenses the anxieties and guilt circulating through these unstable forms of desire, encoding by his/her very difference the multiple configurations that complicate any notion of stable sexual identity. Thus, the queer dimensions of the multiple roles played by Marais – as Cocteau’s homosexual lover, as the object of heterosexual desire, as the Beast, as Avenant, as Ardent – inflect the film with a potent emblem of fluid sexual identities that resist simple categorization in the modes of mere hetero- or homo – or even queer normativity” (382).

    • “The Beast, then, is at one level the imaginary other of the director. But s/he is also an other, and the film suggests that this monstrous love can lead both Beauty and the Beast to a new humanity, one that leaves behind the troubled legacy of the patriarchal family, the perversion of restricted forms of sexual identity, and the disabling fear of all forms of difference, sexual or otherwise. The Beast, depending upon the gaze constructing his or her presence, is thus an ambiguous sexual construct, a queer, especially in a reading that incorporates Cocteau’s directorial eye into the context of the gaze that constructs the beast as an object of desire. From that perspective the film’s camera work becomes a sensuous point of contact between Cocteau and his lover, a way of framing their sexual relationship in a visual code that is unceasingly drive by the passion of the lover’s gaze. At the level of signification the Beast becomes the very signifier of queer presence in the film, despite the (not quite) conventional heterosexuality figured in the denoument with which Cocteau was notoriously unhappy” (382).

    • “Cocteau clearly leaves room here, in both versions of this scene [the ending scene], for resistance to the enormous pressure of the narrative is under to conform to a normative notion of sexuality. The lines reflect… the power of the queer margin – as it turns out, Belle too is attracted by the bestial more than by the idealized prince, and the transformation will require her to ‘adjust.’ Belle’s own desires, what she wants, remain opaque to say the least, a tissue of filial, bestial, and troubled heterosexual possibilities in which difference is always in a potential state of eruption. Thus, even as monstrous love is being erased, the film reinstates it in Belle’s retrospective attraction to the difference(s) incarnated in the Beast and in the serial, performative presence of Marais. Out of the monstrous love emerges Cocteau’s critique of normative values. But that critique’s narrative logic nonetheless reproduces the very dissonances underpinning the troubled idealism that brings the movie to a close. The Queer and the Jew enact those dissonances as the film struggles into the discomfort of its closural opportunism” (383).

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