A Fairy Tale for Adults: Cocteau’s 1946 “La Belle et la Bete” (Beauty and the Beast)

“…Love can turn a man into a beast.  But love can also make an ugly man handsome.”  From La Belle et la Bete, 1946


“Beauty and the Beast” is one of those timeless stories which, like “The Three Muskateers” or “Dracula,” routinely gets a remake in TV or movie form at least once every decade.  We’re familiar, of course, with the delightful 1991 Disney animated version of the tale; and Disney has put out trailers for a new live action film to be issued in March of 2017.

But for those of you who love classic movies, and who would like an adult take on the story, please do not overlook the magnificent 1946 film La Belle et la Bete by director Jean Cocteau.

I know what some of you are thinking:  French…..subtitles…..oh no!  It is true that the version in current release (you can download it from Amazon Instant) is subtitled and not dubbed.  However, this film primarily communicates itself through gorgeous visuals which are supported by composer George Auric’s haunting score.  The dialog in this film is relatively unimportant.  Just watch and enjoy.

For example, observe Belle’s initial entrance into the magic castle.  Prior scenes are filmed in live time.  But upon entering the Beast’s enchanted realm, Belle moves in slow motion as if she were walking through a dream.  When she passes through the main hallway, arms holding candelabra move and track her.  No fancy special effects here; these appear to be live people standing behind the set, with only their arms showing on camera.  The effect is stunning.

la belle et la bête1945réal : Jean CocteauJosette Daycollection christophel

La Belle et la Bete engages us at the adult level through commentary on love, sex, and the relationships between men and women.  Two males vie for Belle’s hand, the Beast and a local ne’er-do-well, Avenant.  It is significant that both characters are played by the same actor, Jean Marais.  As the story unwinds, we see that the Beast and Avenant seem to be aspects of the same personality.  Avenant the rogue has a certain amount of compassion for Belle’s Cinderella-like role as servant to her selfish sisters….but he also tries to grope her.  On the other hand, the Beast truly loves Belle, but at one point must fight himself to stay away from her as she lies unconscious on a bed in the magic castle.  Is he about to kill her….or do something else?

Belle is drawn to both individuals.  She obviously likes Avenant’s looks.  And although she tells the Beast that he is hideous, she sometimes seems sexually excited when he magically appears in the castle.

Cocteau’s tale ends a bit wryly.  Most of us already know what happens at the conclusion of the original fairy tale–through Belle’s devotion, the Beast is transformed into a handsome prince.  In Cocteau’s version, there’s an epilogue.  During the transformation, actor Jean Marais magically appears as the Prince!  Belle seems disappointed.  She admits to the Prince that he looks like Avenant, that she loved Avenant, but that he didn’t know this.  However, she admits that she definitely loved the Beast.  A confused Prince replies, “You’re a strange girl, Belle.”

Perhaps not so strange.  Just human….like the rest of us.


La Belle et la Bette, Dir. Jean Cocteau.  Perf. Jean Marais, Josette Day.  Lopert Pictures Corporation.  1946.  Film.

All images obtained through Bing Public Domain.




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