Beauty and the Beast (1946) (Blu-ray)
Directed by Jean Cocteau
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 93 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 French
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: July 19, 2011
Review Date: July 10, 2011
The world of the movies is perfect for pulling off fantasies and fairy tales where the unbelievable and impossible can be made to seem very believable and quite possible. Today, CGI techniques can give a filmmaker just about any magic he needs to cast an appropriate spell, but one look at Jean Cocteau’s magisterial 1946 fairy tale-come-to-life Beauty and the Beast, and all thoughts of CGI effects and green screen manipulations fade into the mist. This exquisite, enchanting work from the mind of one of France’s premiere artists is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece, a fairy tale that breathes delight and wonder with its every frame. How incredible that the film even exists given the monumental obstacles the filmmakers had to overcome to bring it to life after France’s existing chaotic conditions after World War II. The film itself is a miracle, and its creation exceeds even that nomenclature.
After an upsetting business transaction, a merchant (Marcel André) on the verge of bankruptcy loses his way in a dense forest and stumbles on an enchanted castle. After dining and sleeping the night, he wanders into the garden and plucks a rose for his beautiful daughter Belle (Josette Day). Immediately he is put upon by the castle’s owner, the Beast (Jean Marais), who demands payment for stealing the rose through possession of one of his daughters in order to spare his own life. Belle volunteers and returns to the castle where the Beast, dazzled by her beauty and purity, offers her anything at his command if only she’ll marry him. Initially, Belle is repulsed by the Beast’s visage but as she spends time with him, she sees his gentility and his pain over his looks and manner. But she senses her father is dying of a broken heart over her loss and begs the Beast to let her go to him. The Beast makes her promise to come back within a week, but her dastardly sisters (Mila Parély, Nane Germon) and brother (Michel Auclair), upon seeing her exquisite gown and fine jewels lavished on her by the Beast, hatch their own plan to steal his riches for themselves.
Cocteau’s stature as an artist, playwright, poet, director, and entrepreneur made him the perfect choice for adapting Mme. Leprince de Beaumont’s legendary fairy tale, and he brings to it all the sense of wonder and poetic delicacy of touch that the cinema of the time could offer him. Many of the magical effects that are so dazzling are created in real time (live statuary that breathes smoke, armed candelabras, doors that instantly open and close, trees that part as one passes by them, floating on air down a hallway, pearls that change to rope and back again) while others are simple camera tricks (slow motion, time lapse, or reverse photography) that, while we’re aware of how they’re achieved, only give the project a simple grandeur that untold millions of dollars worth of sets and effects might have made seem gauche or improper for the tone of the piece (the great hall of the Beast, for example, is done mostly in shadows on a relatively small soundstage, but it suggests infinite space through the wizardry of Cocteau’s direction and the brilliantly spare production design of Christian Bérard). The striking contrast between the real world of the merchant and his family and the otherworldly domain of the Beast is so stunningly created that they do seem eons removed from one another, and one always longs to spend more and more time in the enchanted castle and gardens of the melancholy creature.
Jean Marais, long a French stage and screen heartthrob, was perfectly cast as the Beast (he also plays a loutish suitor for Belle named Avenant and, of course, Prince Charming in the conclusion), and his miraculous performance through layers of animal make-up etches such a vivid impression of the creature’s noble suffering and ardor that it’s unforgettable, unquestionably the actor’s greatest performance. Josette Day is Beauty personified: a guileless, loving daughter whose wholesomeness and earnestness brings her dreams to fruition. Mila Parély and Nane Germon make entirely horrid sisters: vain, selfish, deceitful, the perfect counterpoint for Belle’s goodness and selflessness. Michel Auclair and Marcel André as brother and father of Belle respectively both deliver solid portrayals of the men of the family: weak, cowardly, and altogether unworthy of the family’s one ray of light.
The film is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and is offered in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. Meticulously restored, the film now contains only a small scratch here and there and some slight vertical banding in one shot. Grayscale offers up a crisp picture with loads of detail in close-ups and medium shots (enough now to catch a boom mic right above the actors’ heads as they head to Diana’s temple). Black levels still aren’t optimum, and contrast may be slightly light for some tastes, but these are quibbles. The film looks marvelous. The white subtitles are easy to read, and the film has been divided into 19 chapters.
The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix has been cleaned up as much as possible, but the rather primitive recording techniques available at the time prevent the soundtrack from offering much in the way of extensive fidelity. There is no bottom end to the delightfully eccentric music of Georges Auric, and post synching gives that same flat resonance to the dialogue that it often does with films of this era. There is also some low level hiss that hasn’t been able to be removed though crackle, pops, and flutter are no problem at all.
The bonus feature package offers two commentaries. I much preferred Arthur Knight’s very skillful and learned observations on the movie (ported from the original laserdisc release) to Sir Christopher Frayling’s comments though obviously fans of the film will want to experience both commentary tracks.
Philip Glass’ 1994 opera La Belle et La Bete is offered as a separate audio track. Sung in French, it is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1.
All of the video featurettes are presented in 1080i.
“Screening at the Majestic” is a 1995 documentary that features interviews with actors Jean Marais and Mila Parély as well as cinematographer Henri Alekan, all recalling memories from their experiences of working on the film. We also return to some of the locations used in the movie in this 27-minute piece.
An interview with cinematographer Henri Alekan in which he recalls working with the well known director runs for 9 ¼ minutes. This TV interview includes two clips from the film where Alekan discusses his techniques utilized in bringing them off.
“Secret Professionals: Face to Face” is a 1964 TV featurette with make-up artist Hagop Arakelian discussing his craft while working on an actress readying for a shoot. He briefly mentions his work on Beauty and the Beast and on other films and projects in this 8 ¾-minute clip.
The original theatrical trailer runs for 4 minutes while the 1995 reissue trailer runs for 2 minutes.
A discussion of the film’s 1995 restoration is covered in a 4 ½-minute video piece which offers before and after shots of sound and picture.
A stills gallery offers a comprehensive 111 stills both behind-the-scenes, studio portraits, and film stills which the viewer can page through.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentaries that go along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
The enclosed 33-page booklet contains cast and crew lists, some stills from the movie, author Geoffrey O’Brien’s essay of appreciation on the film, Jean Cocteau’s introduction for the film in the 1947 press book for its U.S. release, an excerpt from Francis Steegmuller’s biography of Cocteau dealing with the production of the picture, and composer Philip Glass’ comments on the movie and his operatic version of it.
4.5/5 (not an average)
A magnificent fairy tale come to life, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is a thrilling cinematic achievement made even more deliriously exciting in this new high definition rendering of it marking its best ever appearance on home video. Generous bonus features enhance an already sterling package. Highest recommendation!