Jean Cocteau, a renaissance man of the arts, appears to be the first filmmaker to bring Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont's 18th Century fairy tale, La Belle et la Bête, to the silver screen. It's apropos that magic is at the root of the story, from the curse the Beast is under to the spell that comes over people falling in love, because Cocteau and his team work movie magic bringing this wonderous fantasy to life.
After Cocteau requests a "childlike sympathy" through a note to the audience, he takes us into Belle's (Josette Day) world. She lives with her father and suffers her bratty older sisters Adélaide (Nane Germon) and Félicie (Mila Parély). She also has a foolish brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair), who takes out a loan the father unknowingly is responsible for, which leads to the family's financial ruin. Also hanging around is Ludovic's friend Avenant (Jean Marais), who wants to marry Belle, but she declines his offer.
While riding through the forest, Belle's father (Marcel André) gets lost and comes upon a magical castle. Walking around the grounds, he plucks a rose for Belle, which she had requested. The Beast appears and is angry over the father's thievery. The creature informs the father he will take his life unless a daughter takes his place. After the father relays the story, Belle, feeling responsible for her father's predictament, goes back to live with the Beast. At first scared by him, Belle quickly grows comfortable and enjoys the Beast's company, though she rejects his marriage proposals.
Using a magic mirror, Belle learns her father has grown ill, and the Beast agrees to let her leave for a week. While Belle's focus is nursing her father back to health, the sisters and brother grow jealous of her because she isn't suffering the way they are. Along with Avenant, they plot to steal the Beast's riches and kill him. When Belle learns of the plot, she rushes back to the castle, but will she be able to save the Beast, who has grown weak from love sickness due to her absence?
Though a simple and oft-told story whose result is well-known, Cocteau creates a captivating fairy tale adults can appreciate because the film's not aimed solely at children. The most impressive element is the exquisite cinematography by Henri Alekan and his crew. Inspired by the work of Gustave Doré and Jan Vermeer at Cocteau's suggestion, the use of light and shadow augment the mood of scenes. There are also marvelous bits of movie magic that stand out, from the working of the magic mirror to the candelabras lighting upon the father's entrance to the Beast's castle. Just as the story of Beauty and the Beast endures so does Cocteau's adaptation.
The video is presented with a 1080p/ MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. In 1995, the film was restored from the original nitrate negative, and the high-def digital transfer was created from the 35 mm restoration duplicate negative. The blacks are rich, the whites bright, and the gray scale is well represented. There is very good clarity of detail, as seen in the ornate costumes and the textured of objects, like Beast's facial hair. There are some source issues, though. Slight scratches are noticeable. The focus becomes soft at times. On rare occasions, the image suffers warp flutters and light flickers. But taking everything into account, the video looks very good.
The audio is a French LPCM Mono remastered from an optical soundtrack print. Dialogue sounds clear to my non-French-speaking ears and the track sounds free of defect and age. Also included is a Philip Glass' La Belle et la Bête from 1994, a French opera performed while the film played, available as DTS-HD Master 5.1 Surround. Glass does a great job capturing the tone of the scenes. The orchestra fills the surrounds and the subwoofer helps deliver its bottom end. The singers sound clear and are well balanced with the music.
Criterion offers the following Special Edition Features:
There are two commentary tracks. Film historian Arthur Knight recorded his for Criterion in 1991. Writer/cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling recorded his for the British Film Institute in 2001. Though they naturally cover the same topics, there's not much in the way of duplication, making both tracks worth a listen to better understand the film, the director, and era it made.
"Screening at the Majestic" (1080i, 27 min) - Nearly 50 years after the film's debut, cast and crewmembers are interviewed about it. Cinematographer Henri Alekan is delighted by his return to the locations. "Interview with Henri Alekan" (1080i, 9 min) - Because of the 1995 restoration, the cinematographer is interviewed on Luxembourg television about the film and discusses how paintings affected his approach. "Secrets professionnels: Tete-a-tete" (1080i, 9 min) - Taken from the March 12, 1964 episode of French television show Secrets professionnels: Tete-a-tete, Beauty and the Beast make-up artist Hagop Arakelian reveals his background and his approach to the craft.
There's a small piece about the "Film Restoration" (1080i, 4 min) and a Stills Gallery (1080p) by set photographer G.R. Aldo, whose resume includes his work as a cinematographer on Orson Welles' Othello, Luchino Visconti's Senso, and Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D. and Indiscretion of an American Wife. Two trailers, the Original French (1080i, 4 min) and one related to the Restoration (1080i, 2 min), are also included. The disc is accompanied by a 32-page illustrated booklet featuring Geoffrey O'Brien's "Dark Magic," a short piece by Jean Cocteau from the press book for the film's 1947 U.S. premiere, an excerpt from Cocteau: A Biography by Francis Steegmuller, and an introduction by Philip Glass to his 1994 opera written for the 2003 DVD release.
For those who enjoy the magic of fairy tales, the magic of love, and the magic of movies, allow yourself to fall under the spell of Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast on Criterion Blu-ray.