Acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro called La Belle et la Bête, ‘the most perfect cinematic fable ever told’, and now – following a new 4K digital restoration – Jean Cocteau’s Gothic fantasy, based on a fairytale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, looks more spellbinding and seductive than ever. As part of the BFI’s Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film season, the 1946 masterpiece gets a limited UK cinema release from 3 January 2014.
A hapless merchant, lost in a dark forest, seeks refuge in the castle of a hideous monster that threatens to kill him unless one of his three daughters will agree to take his place. But when Beauty (Josette Day) appears in the castle, the Beast (Jean Marais) falls madly in love with her. The Beast is all repressed lust and melancholy refinement, while Beauty – despite her demure appearance – is no mere damsel in distress, overcoming her fears to explore a shadowy, supernatural realm. Could it be that she secretly relishes this adventure that will help unlock her deepest desires?
Filming in the immediate aftermath of the German occupation of France, director Jean Cocteau worked with designer-artist Christian Bérard and two former combat cameramen, Henri Alekan and René Clément, to conjure up a world of living statues, talking mirrors and candelabras clutched in disembodied hands. The settings for the Beast’s castle were inspired by the dark imagination of Gustave Doré while the scenes in Beauty’s family home were influenced by Vermeer. With a shortage of equipment, location shooting in unfavourable weather, and interior scenes hit with power cuts – the filmmakers’ achievement is nothing short of miraculous. And with the addition of an eerie orchestral score from Georges Auric, so magical is the entire effect that we are tempted to wonder – along with Beauty – ‘Do such marvels really exist?’ The answer must be an enthralled ‘yes’.
This new 4K restoration by SNC/Groupe M6 and the Cinémathèque Française uses the notes and reference prints made by cinematographer Henri Alekan for the 1995 restoration, as well as the diary kept by Cocteau during filming, which has provided valuable evidence of his ambitions for the look and sound of the film.
La Belle et la Bête is released in selected UK cinemas nationwide on 3 January 2014