Now playing at Old Greenbelt Theatre.
At the end of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, a famous actress—either Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich—cried out, “Where is my beautiful Beast?” Cocteau’s poetic black and white film, although made in 1946 under post-war deprivation and scarcity, has defined all other film versions of the French fairy tale, including Disney’s 1991 animation. It’s all there in Cocteau’s fantasy: the anthropomorphic housewares, the enchanted castle, the self-serving petit bourgeois suitor, and the golden prince.
Disney’s 2017 live-action Beauty and the Beast, despite its box-office success, is also indebted to Cocteau, though the two films diverge in ways that reflect the aesthetic and cultural values of their time. A mesmerizing orchestral score is replaced by jaunty hummable show tunes. Ostensibly a children’s film, Cocteau’s Freudian and sexualized Surrealist vision yields to Disney’s hyper-real magic kingdom rendered with high-quality CGI and informed by Trump campaign rallies and pink-hatted feminists. Disney downplays the Freudian subtext, notwithstanding is unsubtle insinuations about Gaston and LeFou’s friendship.
Belle (Emma Watson), the brainy daughter of dotty inventor Maurice (Kevin Kline), yearns to escape her provincial pre-revolutionary French village. She frequents the town “library” with its dozen books, but I doubt Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women or Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man was among them. The pompous schoolmaster opposes educating girls, and hunky hunter Gaston trains his sights on Belle, but mocks books and education. The story unfolds according to the familiar plotline, so Belle must soon replace her father in the hall of the Beast.
Belle’s plucky, outspoken charm contrasts with the lush, sensuous beauty of French actress Josette Day, but makes for a likeable heroine that modern audiences can relate to. More problematic is the Beast (Dan Stevens), who occupies Belle’s friend zone for much of the movie. Honestly, I think she loves him for his two-story library and ability to read Greek. Stevens portrays an arrogant stockbroker—I mean aristocrat—who transforms into a likeable and well-read mensch, but his performance lacks the unsettling duality of Jean Marais, who played the 1946 Beast, the Prince, and the duplicitous Gaston-equivalent. Marais captures the complexity of man, at once savage and noble, brutal and enlightened, masculine and androgynous and elicits the simultaneous attraction and repulsion that animate the Surrealist preoccupation with sex. As Beast or man, Dan Stevens just can’t compete.
The differences in production values extend to the Beast’s palace. The Cocteau film can’t conjure up a Busby Berkeley musical dinner party, but CGI can’t replicate the eerie candelabras with human arms, denizens of a surreal dreamscape. Instead herb tea and homily-dispensing housekeeper Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) stepped out of Downton Abbey, and the wisecracking clock and candelabra come from Fawlty Towers.
The remake earns 4 reels for enjoyable fun, but if you want a 5-reel experience, first see the Disney version and then view Cocteau’s masterpiece, which is part of the Criterion Collection. Be forewarned: Disney’s CGI wolfpack may be a little intense for very young viewers.
Check the theater website for information about movie times and online tickets. Beauty and the Beast accessibility: OC, 2:30 pm Sunday; all other showings with CC and descriptive audio.