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Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête): The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Beauty and the Beast/La Belle et la Bête (1946) movie poster Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête)

French Theatrical Release: October 29, 1946 / Running Time: 94 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Jean Cocteau / Writers: Jean Cocteau (story, screenplay & dialogue), Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (story)

Cast: Jean Marais (Avenant, Beast, Prince Ardent), Josette Day (Belle), Mila Parély (Félicie), Nane Germon (Adélaïde), Michel Auclair (Ludovic), Raoul Marco (Moneylender), Marcel André (Belle's Father)

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As on many fairy tales, the exact origins of the story of Beauty and the Beast are unknown. Two versions of the tale were definitely published in the middle of the 18th century by two different French women. Before long, there was a play and an opera.
The general public probably assumes that the story came from the same European tradition as those attributed to Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, although there is nothing to support that belief. Today, the story's best-known presentation is the 1991 Disney animated film, one of the world's most admired modern cartoons and the inspiration for a long-running stage musical instrumental in changing the face of Broadway.

Several decades before Disney's renaissance effort, the first feature filming of the story arrived in Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête), a 1946 French movie written and directed by Jean Cocteau. Cocteau was a man of many trades, most of them artistic in nature. He began writing poems in his early twenties and moved onto ballets, plays, and novels before turning thirty. In his early forties, Cocteau tried filmmaking, scripting and directing 1930's The Blood of a Poet (Le Sang d'un Poète). Though he went back to poetry, essays, and theatre, Cocteau returned to the movies in the 1940s.

His second narrative feature as both writer and director, Beauty credits Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, the woman who abridged and revised the fairy tale's first known publication (by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve), with the original story.

Belle's Father (Marcel André), Maurice to Disney fans, is startled and terrified by the Beast after picking a rose. Beast offers Belle feasts on an armed dinner table as his houseguest.

The plot is probably familiar to you. An old man (Marcel André) gets lost in the forest and winds up in a strange, enchanted, and seemingly unoccupied castle, where he helps himself to some food and rest. Before he leaves, the man is accosted by the castle's owner, a hairy, hideous, and sort of human monster (Jean Marais) who decides the old man should die for stealing one of his roses. The old man's pleas for his life elicit an alternative punishment offer from the Beast. He can return home on the Beast's magic horse and have one of his three daughters take his place. The old man accepts the three days he has to consider the offer, not intending to ask his daughters such a favor.

Upon hearing about the situation, though, the man's selfless youngest daughter Belle (Josette Day) secretly hops on the horse and rides to the Beast's castle to fill in for her father. Belle's presence seems to soften the Beast's harsh manner. He hopes that she might be able to look past his ugly exterior and love him for the man he is inside. She's not yet ready for that and he's not yet ready to give up chasing and killing deer. But is blind love possible? The Beast seems to think so when he grants Belle a week off from his palace to check in on her family, while entrusting her with the key to his riches.

Back home, things have grown dire for Belle's family. Money troubles have soured everyone's mood, from Belle's brother (Michel Auclair) and suitor (also Marais, Cocteau's muse) to her two snobby sisters (Mila Parély and Nane Germon). They plot a solution to their financial problems while Belle worries about her bedridden father.

Get a good, clear look at the Beast (Jean Marais), whom Blu-ray allows you to see in the highest resolution thus far available in your home. The dealings of Belle's suitor Avenant (also Jean Marais) and brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair) bring her family into financial troubles.

Cocteau's film is light on dialogue and heavy on atmosphere. The atmosphere is striking by 1946 standards and remains even more so today. It's not The Wizard of Oz, but there is undeniable magic and charm to the Beast's black and white world. Smoke billows (sometimes from Beast's hands), curtains blow, Belle rolls, busts' heads and eyes move, and arms wield candelabras from inside the wall and table.
The Beast's furry and regal appearance slightly recalls the Cowardly Lion, and the lack of color (which post-war shortages mandated, against Cocteau's initial hopes) helps to hide the seams and shortcuts that today's technology makes apparent on Bert Lahr and his castmates. While it opens with a blackboard and pleas for viewers to bring childlike wonder, Beauty is about as mature, lyrical, and sophisticated as fairy tales get.

Cocteau made a few more films, turning Blood of a Poet into the first chapter of "The Orphic Trilogy", a staggered series that continued with 1950's Orpheus and concluded with 1960's Testament of Orpheus (starring Cocteau himself). Nearly fifty years since passing away, Cocteau remains regarded as a great artist and Beauty and the Beast his cinematic magnum opus. Appropriately, the film was among the first admitted into The Criterion Collection, the prestigious line devoted to highbrow cinema from around the world.

The release came so early into DVD's lifeline that I can't even find a consensus for the street date, with sources varying between January and October 1998. Whatever the real debut, Beauty might have been the very first Criterion Collection DVD on the market, although its #6 spine number places it behind some other landmark films (including #1, Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, and #2, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai). Beauty was a big enough deal for Criterion to revisit in February 2003, when DVD sales were soaring and every studio was into giving their most treasured films the deluxe treatment. That DVD remains in print as does a movie-only edition released in September 2008 with Criterion's "Essential Art House" branding. This week, Beauty and the Beast makes its Blu-ray debut in a disc whose contents are comparable to the film's second Criterion Collection DVD.

Beauty and the Beast (1946) The Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Details

1.33:1 Fullscreen
LCPM Mono 1.0 (French)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Video Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: July 19, 2011
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Clear Keepcase
Still available as Criterion Collection DVD ($39.95 SRP)
and movie-only Essential Art House DVD ($19.95 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Beauty and the Beast's original designs are upheld in the Blu-ray's 1.33:1 picture and monaural sound. As this was my first viewing of the film, I can't say how this compares to the movie's two Criterion DVDs. On its own merits, the video here is excellent. There are minor scratches and specks, a few missing frames, and one bad, jumpy shot, but I have no doubt this is as good as Criterion's current technology allows. And that is quite good. This is amazingly clean for its age. While there expectedly isn't the detail of modern films' Blu-rays, you do get refreshingly clear looks at this handsome production. One issue worth noting pertains to the subtitles. They are white and while that is a sensible choice, I'm not sure that it is the best one; they're especially challenging to read in the opening, even if they are cleaner than DVD subtitles and very subtly outlined.

Not being a French speaker, there isn't much to say about the LCPM 1.0 soundtrack. The dialogue sounded adequate, save for one minor dropout, and the music does as well. The 5.1 opera track (more on that in just a bit) has much greater impact, but as far as the proper original soundtrack is concerned, one can hardly ask for more of a 65-year-old foreign film.

Actors Mila Parély (Félicie) and Jean Marais (Beast, Avenant, Prince Ardent) enjoy rewatching the film they made more than 50 years earlier in their "Screening at the Majestic." French film critic Joy Hoffmann listens intently while Henri Alekan recalls shooting the film in this 1995 news segment.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING, and DESIGN

The sturdy supply of extras begins with three secondary audio tracks. First and least usual is a 5.1 DTS-HD master audio mix of a Beauty and the Beast opera.
The middle installment of American composer Philip Glass' 1990s tribute to three Jean Cocteau films, it performs the lines operatically as they are uttered, with original music filling in the plenty gaps. It's an interesting experience, perfectly sychronized to the film it celebrates, with distinct and compelling results.

Next, we get two film historian audio commentaries. Recorded in 1991 (the year he died) for what was then called Voyager Company, Arthur Knight gives a rehearsed take on the film, reading from Cocteau's diary and putting this into the context of the director's varied careers. It's as close to a Cocteau commentary as we'll ever get. At times, Knight gives his own speeches, using this film to talk about other monstrosity tales, human's feelings towards animals, and Cocteau's motivations for making the movie.

The second commentary, by Sir Christopher Frayling, was recorded in 2001. His technique is to observe and report, pointing things out and using them in larger comparison of Cocteau's film to the credited fairy tale. He also compares this to Disney's film and other variations on the story, such as Edward Scissorhands. Like Knight's track, culturist Frayling's is far more informative than entertaining, but if you're checking out bonus features on Criterion Collection films, chances are you'll appreciate the academic approach.

The video supplements are all in French, with English subtitles. All are encoded in HD, regardless of their original source.

"Screening at the Majestic" (26:51) is Yves Kovacs' solid 1997 documentary that returns director of photography Henri Alekan to the movie's filming locations, reads from Cocteau's own notes, and interviews cast members Jean Marais and Mila Parély. We get some good production stories and photos, as well as the fun sight of Marais and Parély revisiting the film. All of that fleshes out what feels like a pilgrimage.

"Interview with Henri Alekan" (9:15) stems from a news program in 1995. Film critic Joy Hoffmann gets the cinematographer to talk about his experience on Beauty and the Beast in conjunction with a restored French rerelease of the film.

Makeup artist Hagop Arakelian demonstrates his craft in "Secrets Professionnels: Tête-À-Tête." The Belle and the Bête claim the title's capital Bs in the film's original theatrical trailer. 1990s technology saves the day in "Film Restoration."

"Secrets Professionnels: Tête-À-Tête (Professional Secrets: Face to Face)" (8:49) is an excerpt from a 1964 TV episode in which Beauty and the Beast makeup artist Hagop Arakelian waxes on his field and his career, while while making up a lady and a man to different effect. It's certainly a curiosity worth seeing.

Two notable trailers for Beauty and the Beast are offered. The original (4:04) promotes the film at length with Cocteau narration in the vein of the prologue that extends to celebrate his crew, cast, and country. A restoration trailer (1:56) is less old-fashioned, editing clips from the movie more tightly with only a bit of onscreen text and voiceover. Both are fairly beat-up, which underscores how terrific the feature presentation is.

"Film Restoration" (4:07) is a dated but welcome featurette explaining and demonstrating the work that went into sprucing the film up for the medium's 100th anniversary. Split-screen comparisons and behind-the-scenes footage details how the team tackled missing frames and soundtrack distortion using the best technology 1995 had to offer. (Needless to say, the movie looks a better now than it did "After.")

Jean Marais spent five hours every day getting transformed into the Beast, a process this and other stills gallery photos document. The Blu-ray's menu runs with this smoky shot of candelabra-wiedling arms, with the listings emerging from the left side.

The on-disc extras conclude with a stills gallery housing just over 100 photos shot by set photographer and future cinematographer G.R. Aldo. The subjects range from artistic portraits of scenes and characters to looks at Jean Marais getting his beast make-up. The user-navigated section, whose images are happily large enough to nearly fill the screen height, closes with three poster designs.

Not everything from the movie's original 1998 Criterion DVD made it onto its 2003 reissue and the one item lost in that upgrade -- the 25-minute documentary "Angel of Space and Time", a 1970s episode from PBS' Cinematic Eye series -- does not resurface here.

From the few descriptions I could find of it, it sounds interesting, but less authoritative than the retrospectives included here. In addition, this Blu-ray drops the English reprint of the original Beaumont fable, which appeared on both versions of the DVD. That's sort of unfortunate and not explained by an expired license, but it's not like you can't find the story online with minimal effort.

The menu stays on the smoky sight of Beast's arm-held candelabras while some score plays. The disc resumes playback better than DVD, returning you to the movie or bonus feature you were last watching, even after disc ejection. Although you might not need them, the Blu-ray supports bookmarks as well. Extras take while to load, but they're worth it.

It wouldn't be a Criterion Collection release if this section ended there. As usual, the studio has provided a substantial companion booklet inside the clear keepcase. It opens with film credits and closes with restoration information and acknowledgements. In between those, we get four generously illustrated articles. Geoffrey O'Brien's "Dark Magic" is a heady and florid reading of the film, which finds meaning in moments and techniques and ties them back to Cocteau and his crew. Cocteau himself supplies "Once Upon a Time", a fascinating note taken from the press book of the film's December 1947 US release. He writes about the demands of the French film industry, his intentions for the film, and his hopes for American viewers.

The next four pages, "On the Making of Beauty and the Beast", are excerpted from Francis Steegmuller's Cocteau: A Biography (1970). They begin with sumptuous praise and move to detailing practical production challenges (from military airfield intrusions and a game market strike to Cocteau's bouts with eczema, jaundice, and opium), quoting from the director's diary where appropriate. Finally, "Philip Glass on His Opera" explains the opera soundtrack added for the 2003 DVD, starting with a pretentious interpretation of the film. All four are highly recommended reads.

Per usual, the case adheres to standard Blu-ray dimensions, but downplays the format far more than most. The reverse side of the keepcase artwork displays imagery and a chapters list. The front cover art is updated again from the two earlier editions.

Belle (Josette Day) rolls past blowing curtains in the film's most iconic shot. Beast (Jean Marais) presents Beauty (Josette Day) with the key to his heart, er, Diana's Pavilion.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast intrigues as one of few classical fairy tale films. Though more potent artistically than dramatically, it holds up as a stately and enchanting adaptation that should appeal to viewers of all ages and tastes.

Criterion's new Blu-ray edition doesn't add any new bonus features, but it retains a fine supply sure to satisfy, from French TV programs to yet another outstanding booklet. Most importantly, the disc bestows the film with a magnificent presentation that nearly eliminates any concerns of age and wear. You'll have to look long and hard to find other movies from the 1940s as fascinating and imaginative as this and with such a fulfilling release to go with it. While the upgrade value of this disc depends on your appreciation of the film and of high-definition picture and sound, it makes a worthwhile first purchase and at a price identical to what the DVD presently sells for.

If the tag seems too high to you or you're limiting your collection to only your most treasured films, then you still owe it to yourself to see the movie, which Criterion continues to sell in an inexpensive movie-only DVD as well.

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Reviewed July 20, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1946 CLT, Centre National de l'Audiovisuel, Célia Films, and 2011 Janus Films, The Criterion Collection.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.