screen swoon: la belle et la bête

the picture: La Belle Et La Bête
the year: 1946
the director: Jean Cocteau
the talent: Josette Day et Jean Marais
the deal: beast meets girl

I never went in for the whole fairytale princess thing.
Sure, Cinderella gave me violent chills as a young'n, but that was only because in some versions (here) there were three balls, not one, and therefore three glorious gowns to pour over. Also, it was better than stories about oversized root vegetables and ludicrous amounts of porridge.

In the opening scene of La Belle Et La Bête, director Jean Cocteau requests that we view the film with "childlike simplicity", something I clearly lacked even as a nipper.

A minute later, the camera pans upwards to reveal Belle's sister Adelaide in a ridiculous sequin and pheasant feather hat and I conclude that for threads this elaborate, I can put up with 90 minutes of babbling, square-jawed schmaltz.


Cocteau called in Vogue illustrator Bébé (real name Christian Bérard) to take charge of the costumery on La Belle Et La Bête, which ranged from bedazzled necklines and colossal sleeves to grubby aprons and neat turbans.

"Watching Christian Bérard at work is an extraordinary sight. At (couture house) Paquin's, surrounded by tulle and ostrich feathers, smeared with charcoal, covered with perspiration and spots, his beard on fire, his shirt hanging out, he gives to luxury a profound significance. Between his small ink stained hands, the costumes cease to be mere props and take on the arrogant actuality of fashion. He makes us realize that a period dress is not merely a costume, but a fashion which belonged to a period and changed with it. People dressed by Bérard look as though they lived at a place, in a definite period, and not as though they were going to a fancy dress ball."
- Jean Cocteau, Diary Of A Film.

After WWII, fabric was in short supply, so it's beyond me how Bébé managed to piece together the dozens of elaborate gowns and embellished frock coats Cocteau required. Even minor characters like the fur-draped usurer were allowed their finery.

Like Cocteau, Bébé got big results by simple means. 

For me, revolutionary effects like Cocteau's backwards editing techniques are matched by Bérard's ingenuity on the clothing front - I'm talking tricks like giving sparkle to the horse's mane, using Josette Day's hair as the ultimate accessory and kitting every cast member out in a floor-skimming cape, no matter how tough times were.

You'll be glad to know that while the bling and codpieces suggest the ultimate fantasy land, La Belle Et La Bête doesn't have a typical fantasy ending. 

The 8-year-old cynic in me is only delighted.

You can watch the full film here, and read part of Cocteau's Diary Of A Film here.
(Oh, and yes, of course I love the Disney version too. I'm only human.)

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