Two weeks ago I was prepared to sit down and write that La Belle et La Bete, Jean Cocteau’s 1946 interpretation of Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s 1756 telling of Beauty and the Beast, was my favourite film of all time. At the time I would have been right but I delayed writing because I wanted to talk about holidaying in France and the Toronto Film Festival first. Like all things in life hesitation can sometimes be a pivotal act, a steady fulcrum around which to change course. In the same way that I am glad that I looked up the quote captioning the picture above (I had always attributed it to Hunter S. Thompson, despite his referencing it at the commencement of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas to one Dr. Samuel Johnson), I am glad I sat down and watched La Belle et La Bete again before setting my thoughts in stone.
When I was four years old my mother went into hospital for a week to give birth to my brother. Apparently it wasn’t going to be an easy birth (though I’m sure she wasn’t expected to be in labour for a week), hence the pre-emptive hospitalization. For the duration of the week it was just me and my Dad. Each day he collected me from school during his lunch-hour and drove me to his mother’s house. I spent each afternoon with my granny (as I called her) and when he arrived to collect me at teatime he brought me a comic as a daily treat. No Batman, no Superman, no Spiderman or Hulk, each afternoon at my granny’s house was completed by the handing over of a ‘Classics Illustrated’ Comic. Among those I remember were Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow and Treasure Island, as well as The Ox-Bow Incident (amateur psychologists take note). Some years ago when I saw Cocteau’s film for the first time I remembered that my Dad had also given me Beauty and the Beast. Five minutes into the film when Belle asked her father to bring her a rose on his return from his travels I plummeted through a trapdoor long since hammered shut and remembered the awful significance of a single stolen rose. I re-experienced the images of a lone father riding through the forest, shoulders hunched against poverty, ungrateful children and an unforgiving world. I remembered the pain of being beastly and the tragic majesty of a kingdom animated by magic but suspended in sorrow.
My first exposure to this story may have been the first time I cheered for the monster and my introduction to the idea of an antihero. I can think of no good reason why I forgot all of this but I am glad that Cocteau reawakened those memories with a calling card as surreal as La Belle et La Bete. His imagery is striking throughout, within the Beast’s castle human arms jut from the walls holding candles that light and extinguish as the characters pass them by. Hands protrude from the dinner table to pour wine while sculpted stone animals stand guard over doors, staircases and gardens. Belle and her Beast move through this gorgeous black and white world in varying states of animation, dream-state slow motion and exaggerated ecstasy. Cocteau’s flourishes are striking, no moreso than when Belle suddenly disappears from one house to land in another, the transition filmed backwards and projected forwards to give the impression of her bursting through a wall to unfold within the room.
Even at the end, when Beast is transformed by Belle’s love to embody the dashing bountiful Prince (and what little boy doesn’t hope for that to happen?), Belle’s apparent disappointment at the disappearance of her beautiful Bete is an extra tickle that Cocteau can’t resist. As Belle herself says, if she can learn to love one then she supposes she can learn to love another and while La Belle et La Bete is a glorious piece of film virtuosity I’m not sure that the magic will be forever blinding. Much like the transition from imperfect Beast to pitch perfect Prince the veil has now been lifted and it feels like I could easily learn to love another.
As a case in point, if you allow me to jump-cut back to early 1992 and six months before the arrival of Edward Scissorhands, I would probably have told you that Betty Blue was my favorite film of all time. What self respecting (or should that be self righteous?) student didn’t have a poster of Beatrice Dalle pinned above the bed as company for Che Guevara? I never owned a Che Guevara poster but I briefly bled for Betty. And Betty Blue is indeed a fine film, ably directed with a talented and beautiful cast. It presented a tragic story which the student in me could heave upon hunched shoulders as I slogged along the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
In other words, it’s all Gauloise cool until it happens to you. Unfortunately, I met my own Betty Blue about a year after I saw the film. I might have seen it on pirated video but I still ended up paying full admission. I don’t need to go into the worst of details but suffice to say that we fell in love, she fell apart, she broke my heart and I raged against hers. She put on a good show for quite a few years until one night she went to bed with a month’s supply of anti-depressants, enough she thought to kill her but in reality and due to the late intervention of paramedics, only enough to imprison her forever in a bedridden semi-comatose state. I found this out the very next day when I phoned a friend to tell him of my engagement to my then girlfriend of seven years (now wife of six). I caught a brief glimpse of what my life could have been but my life is not a movie. Unlike Jean-Hugues Anglade, I did not travel to her hospital bed and smother her with a pillow, releasing her vital spirit back into the wild to rage and run free while I walked away unnoticed and emotionally cleansed. I had already walked away many years previously and accepted that I would never be Spring-clean again.
Films have never taught me how or what to do. I ask myself difficult questions and I never expect easy answers. Still sometimes, just sometimes, a film can serve as a repository of story, a series of images and a snowstorm of memory. Memory of fables and tales shook half a century ago by a 57 year old French man to waken a frightened four year old boy and a grateful forty year old man.
La Belle et La Bete is the newest entry on La Liste. Betty, I’m sorry. I wish, like me, you could have hesitated too.