When tracing the influences of Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast (2017), its Surrealist roots may be the most important.
Fairy tales have been the pillars of society since man figured out how to tell stories that contain a morel. As a culture develops its fairy tales develop along with the ideas of the culture. The story of Beauty and the Beast continues to adapt since Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve first released this captivating tale in 1740. With each new instillation of the thrilling tale of beauty and love, the original narrative changes. There will always be some through-lines though that never change.
In 1946 Surrealist director, Jean Paul Cocteau, using the abridge version by Jeannne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, to create La Belle et la Bète, the first instance of this French story on film. Because it is the first film version, Cocteau retained a lot of the original story and ideas. A poor merchant lives with his children in poverty after losing his fleet of ships, only to find out that one has returned. The merchant makes a trip into town with the hopes of reclaiming his fortune, but discovers that after repaying his debts there is nothing left for him or his family. Forced to return home in the dark, he gets lost and stumbles upon a castle where he is treated very well until he leaves at which point he takes a rose; it is meant as a gift for his daughter Belle. The Beast demands retribution for the merchant’s theft and through one way or another Belle arrives and lives with the Beast, who throughout the rest of the story tries to win Belle’s affection. Eventually Belle falls in love with the Beast and releases him from his curse.
Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), French poet, novelist, dramatist, designer, playwright, artist and filmmaker.
All of this remains from short story to film, and if you haven’t watched the film, please take the time to watch it before reading this essay as like any good Surrealist ‘dream-like’ piece the experience of watching it will outweigh a second-hand recounting.
A look at the notable aesthetic and narrative choices made by Cocteau that end up finding their way into later version of the film show some strong connections between all iterations of Beauty’s story. First and foremost, the characters Cocteau creates are iconic images that the film aesthetically becomes a reference for Disney’s later versions. Belle’s (Josette Day) 18th century attire consisting of a simple knee length peasant dress over a flowy assumedly white shirt and matching white bonnet matches her 1991 and 2017 counterparts. Belle also retains her dramatic need- to stay with and watch over her father- that Disney complicates by also giving Belle a strong case of wanderlust.
Cocteau cuts down the number of siblings that Belle has from 5 to 3; two sisters and a brother. What is interesting here is that Cocteau’s sisters, Félicie (Mila Parèly) and Adélaïde (Nane Germon), are portrayed as social climbers who do not care for anything that isn’t expensive or royal. This snobbish attitude includes dismissing their sister as an almost Cinderella-like slave. Belle may be beautiful, but chooses to take care of the house work instead of her appearance. For their vanity and 2-dimensionality, it would not be amiss to think of them as the triplets from the town in Disney’s version who are only known and show for their superficial interest in Gaston and how ‘dreamy’ he is.
Speaking of Gaston, the first character that might have you drawing conclusion between the two films is Avenont (Jean Marais). Avenont is the best friend of Belle’s brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair), whom we will also talk about a bit later. It is Avenont who proposes to Belle in the first few minutes of the movie thus connecting himself to Gaston. His proposal is much nicer and far more caring than Gaston’s. More than anything it is Avenont’s looks that remind the viewer most of the strapping animated character. Avenont’s wavy hair and chiseled face were more than mere inspiration for the animated character and later real life actor. Another indicator of Gaston (AKA the classic Disney Villain) is his sidekick Le Fou. Whenever Avenont is seen Ludovic is also there. The rounded features of Auclair and his constant proximity to Avenont makes him a prime candidate for Le Fou’s original character. Avenont and Ludovic also end up trying to go after the Beast and his riches in the end thus establishing them as the ‘bad guy’ antagonist of Gaston and Le Fou.
The Surrealist nature of the ’46 film made for aesthetic choices that again became instrumental in the late Disney versions. Firstly, there is a consistent theme of fog and eeriness that surrounds the Beast and his castle. The shots of the castle especially before Belle begins to fall in love with the Beast, are dark and looming. The fog adds a mystical dreamlike effect that, not only enhance the abandoned feel of the castle, but also is indicative of Surrealist drama. Disney chooses to use snow and dark clouds to create a chilling atmosphere to surround the Beast’s castle and create the enchanted woods that surrounds the Beast’s kingdom.
The Cocteau version also plays into the narrative that the things around the castle happen, but there seems to be no one there controlling the action. This effect was accomplished a few ways in Cocteau’s films. Firstly, he has actors who become parts of the set. Be it arms jutting from walls holding candelabras that light up and sway ever so subtly or the decorations of the fire place that watch over your dinner Cocteau personifies the items of the castle through real people. This is something that also pops up in the Disney films, but in true Disney fashion the heroine is given talking inanimate object sidekicks instead of talking animals. In the 2017 film the first look of the castle does contain two lamps held by two out stretched arms, perhaps as an homage to the 1946 film. The use of stop-motion and shots played in reveres also contribute to creating the surreal, and yet truthful recreation of the story Cocteau wanted to achieve.
There are a few interesting differences where Disney decided to pass on what Cocteau recreated. Firstly, the profession of Belle’s father is changed from a merchant to an inventor to an artist. Perhaps this was, because Disney felt merchant wasn’t whimsical enough, or they wanted Belle and her father to embrace the strange talking inanimate objects as normal? What it does create, strictly for the animated version, is a nearly steampunk vibe, where machines that won’t be dreamed up yet are put to work, while the people of the castle appear more machine like. The live action film lessens this mechanical feel by pairing down the level of complicated machinery, and portraying the castle dwellers are far more human; the wardrobe is narcoleptic, the feather dusters are doves, and the harpsicord has cavities!
The most noticeable difference between Cocteau’s version and other versions is the ending. Cocteau still has Beauty returning after nearly breaking the heart of the Beast, but adds drama by having Avenont and Ludovic arriving at the Beast’s castle attempting to steal from the Beast while Belle works to save the Beast form his broken heart. Avenont and Ludovic stumble upon the Beast’s hidden treasures which consists of a room full of gold with a beautiful statue. The two try to break into the room and both are shot by the statue. Avenont falls into the room of riches and turns into the Beast. The curse shifts to Avenont as the Beast finally feels Belle’s love and the Beast transforms back into a human, but not just any human.
The Beast takes on the appearance of Avenont. This is by far the most Surreal aspect of the film. The symbolism feels like an important message or point the film is trying to make, but like a real dream it could mean anything, or nothing. It is no wonder that the child-aiming animated version chose to forgo this dramatic element, but this may have been one of the greatest twist endings ever! Disney also chooses to add a time pressure to their films by saying the mystical rose will wither soon and so will the castle and all of its inhabitants, but this is not prevalent in the Cocteau version.
Seventy-one years span the gap between the first Beauty and the Beast film and the most recent. It seems the old adage stays true though because as much as things have changed something have stayed exactly the same.