The term ‘surréaliste’, or surrealist, was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917 in response to Jean Cocteau’s ballet Parade. It meant to Apollinaire ‘an attempt to reach beyond the limits of the “real”’ (Baldick, 2008: 324). In looser terms, surrealist is to describe something as imaginative but bizarre.
Much of Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête fits in to this definition. The palace itself is an isolated and dark place, very much fitting in to the Gothic tradition. There are disembodied hands to act as servants though Belle calls them ‘invisible’. They hold the candles and serve food and drink. The Beast gifts Belle with a glove which transports her to her family home. These elements would be considered surreal, but there is a Gothicism to it.
The Marvelous image of the Beast is Surreal in its eerie juxtaposed statement of humanity and animalism. The Beast is horrifying as an ugly, terrifying lion, but his animalism does not sit comfortably. He walks as a man, he talks as a man and he dresses in decadent upper-class man clothing. Perhaps most disconcerting are his eyes set amongst matted fur; Jean Marais’s eyes seem liquid and intense, impossibly soulful for his monstrous appearance. The Beast asks Belle never to look in to his eyes, for it is the damning evidence that he is more than what he seems. This transformation is also Gothic Surrealism.
Interestingly, Cocteau had originally intended for the Beast to a stag-like creature. There are hints of it throughout the film, from the antlered statues in the courtyard to the referrals back to Diane and the moon. In Roman mythology, the virgin goddess of the hunt punishes Actaeon for spying on her and her nymphs while they bathed. His punishment is to be turned in to a stag and be ripped apart by his own hunting dogs. The archer figure appears throughout, and the relevance becomes clear when the statue of Diane turns and shoots her arrow at the falling Avenant, turning him in to the Beast before his death. Avenant is the human suitor, also played by Marais. He is also a hunter as Actaeon was. It is an exploration of the transformative power of love, which can create and save beasts of men. As the prince says:
PRINCE: Love can turn a man into a beast. But love can also make an ugly man handsome.
In the press-book which accompanied the premier of La Belle et la Bete in America in 1947, Cocteau states:
My aim would be to make the Beast so human, so sympathetic, so superior to men, that his transformation into Prince Charming would come as a terrible blow to Beauty
In many ways, Belle’s desire for the Beast is what makes the transformation disappointing. The Beast was framed in such a saccharine light that his loss is felt even though he has returned a triumphant man.
Surrealism as an artistic movement was defined in 1924 by André Breton in Manifeste du Surréalisme. Its concern is with hallucinations and dreams, sexual desire, and breaking down the boundaries between irrationality and the rational, and was greatly influenced ‘by the Symbolists and by Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious’ (Baldick, 2008: 324).
Freud’s theory of the unconscious concerns itself with the relationship between our conscious mind—the ego—and the conflicting sides of our subconscious—the superego and the ID. There is an analogy of this within the film. Avenant and the Beast represent the superego and ID at different times in the film, never occupying the same space, and the final coupling of the two culminates in the Prince Charming figure.
Freudian imagery appears in much of the sexual subtext also. As Belle awaits her first introduction to the Beast, he moves in silence and approaches her from behind. She senses his presence, and toys suggestively with the knife on the table. The image of a scared woman playing with a phallic object burns with both desire and fear, excitement and anxiety. The sexual imagery is important to her character arc. She beseeches her father:
BELLE: Father, bring me a rose. There aren’t any around here.
Her wish is no less impossible than her sisters’ but it seems far humbler and it is why she ends up at the palace. The rose is symbolically a request for love, and for something different from the life she leads now. Were there roses in her town, she would have no reason to seek it. One could argue that the request for beauty with a penetrative power as the rose does with its thorns is also suggestive.
Cocteau said of his film:
My story would concern itself mainly with the unconscious obstinacy with which women pursue the same type of man, and expose the naiveté of the old fairy tales that would have us believe that this type reaches its ideal in conventional good looks
This attention drawn to the unconscious is a key aspect of the Surrealism of the film. Belle’s first entrance to the palace is shown as an exploration of her own subconscious. She walks down corridors and darkened tunnels, walks past billowing curtains as the music swells. This lone figure walking in darkness because love has brought her here is a clear reference to the myth of Orpheus, who descended to the underworld in order to win back love. Towards the climax of the film, we see Belle transported home and arrive falling through a mirror. The metaphor is one of realisation, of delving in to one’s soul and returning changed and wiser. It echoes the frame of Cocteau’s other great work Le Sang d’un Poète (1930) of an artist entering the underworld through a mirror and returning inspired, and represents the return from the underworld and back to a world of realism. Cocteau asks as of his audience in the preamble that we view his film with a child’s logic; Belle does not question the bizarre things she sees, and nor must we.
A final idea introduced by Breton to Surrealism in 1937 was the idea of delirious love. For Breton, love was the only idea ‘capable of reconciling every individual, momentarily or not, with the idea of life’ (Breton, 1988: 823). This is used literally in the climax of the film: Belle, who so intensely loves the Beast, is able to save him with her love. She is able in the realest sense to reconcile his true form with life, thus allowing the curse to be broken.
Breton despised Cocteau for his commercial success in a movement he had created. Cocteau himself denied being a Surrealist, but the evidence is certainly there for La Belle et la Bete. It is a Surrealist tale with lulls of tedious realism for both the audience and for Belle. It is a Gothic romance with an uncertain ending of happiness when all returns to as it should be, perhaps resigning Belle to that life she rejected from Avenant. Regardless, La Belle et la Bete is a masterful and gorgeous film, worthy of the praise it received. Thursday 29th October marks its 69th anniversary, making this the perfect time to watch the tale as old as time.
Baldick, C. (2008). Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Breton, A. (1988) Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Gallimard.
Cocteau, J. (1947). Once Upon a Time—French Poet Explains His Filming of a Fairy Tale.
La Belle et la Bête (1946). [DVD] Jean Cocteau, France: Criterion.
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