While some other mid-20th-century directors were pursuing the chimera of “total cinema,” Jean Cocteau was chasing down the dream of a “total art.” But if “total cinema” meant capturing on screen the actual world as it really was, Cocteau’s “total art” meant giving form, instead, to the otherwise impalpable worlds of desire and dream. Both quests were fundamentally unrealistic, but Cocteau embraced this truth in ways both joyously inventive and technically rigorous. The most ambitious and talented fabulist since E.T.A. Hoffmann, Cocteau not only produced a vast and diverse corpus of poems, drawings, plays, sculptures, novels, and libretti, he also wrote and directed a small but astonishing group of films. Beauty and the Beast is the best of his five feature films and the greatest fable of his entire oeuvre—a vulnerable-beast-in-love tale to end all others, from King Kong to Edward Scissorhands.
Much of the film’s deep magic comes from Cocteau’s sense of himself as a vulnerable beast-in-love: In his mid-50s when he made the film, Cocteau was openly gay in an often viciously homophobic post-Vichy France, an opium addict, plagued by skin-disfiguring eczema, and yet still enamored of his much younger star, the Adonis-like Jean Marais, his sometime-lover and great friend and collaborator. In Marais’s triple role (he plays the monstrous yet tender-hearted Beast; Avenant, the hunky but caddish suitor of Josette Day’s La Belle; and the ensorcelled Prince Ardent, whom the Beast is ultimately revealed, with some ambivalence, to be), the actor lends virtuosic as well as symbolic appeal to Cocteau’s cinematic inquiry into the complex interplay of identification and desire. Between the time of their meeting in 1937 and Cocteau’s death in 1963, the two were often acknowledged publicly as a couple, though they both had other lovers as well. And they spent many of those years living together as a family, on and off, first in a Paris apartment and later in a grand house in the Fontainebleau Forest.
Made in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi Occupation of France, Beauty and the Beast depicts a very different sort of family, a traditional bourgeois family—La Belle’s—that happens to be in serious trouble: divided, penniless, and without a strong patriarch. In other words, la belle France itself. But, if Cocteau’s film in some ways pointed up the nation’s devastated present and uncertain future, it was also one of the first major cinematic triumphs of the post-war era. It helped revitalize France’s film industry, and thus in no insignificant way contributed to the nation’s renascent economic as well as cultural health. However, the film provides no evident “happy ending” for La Belle’s family; Cocteau doesn’t tell us what’s in store for her siblings, for example. Indeed, whether or not the film’s ending is a fully happy one even for La Belle herself remains an open question, just as it did for the allegorized bourgeois national family of post-Occupation France.
And, of course, just as it did for Cocteau himself. Beauty and the Beast is both a national tale and the very personal story of its creator’s sense of himself as a regal but cursed, aging but perennially romantic, gay artist. For all its very genuine and supremely successful appeal to the childlike, it’s also a mature, sophisticated meditation on gay aestheticism, and thus a crucial work in Cocteau’s lifelong project—not just to acknowledge, but also actively to participate in the artifice of the real. From the perspective of this aestheticism, there’s nothing “natural” or given about what appears to us as real. In cinema as in life, Cocteau believed, appearances aren’t mere reflections of reality, but rather the morphing, disturbed, beautiful, hideous creatures of human exertion and contortion. Appearances are visceral as well as visual, and Cocteau’s cinematic art is the art of living hands—like the flesh-and-blood, pre-CGI hands of the young actors who hold the magic candelabras in the famous corridor scene at La Bête’s enchanted castle.
Beauty and the Beast is a gorgeously ethereal film, but also one with sinews and bones and blood…and semen: The spilled pearls that magically self-assemble in La Bête’s palm during one of his failed erotic encounters with La Belle are just one example of the film’s abundant traces of the spunk of Cocteau’s consciously queer artifice. Such traces may be less “obvious” here than in Cocteau’s more explicitly homoerotic works. And yet it’s precisely the questions and challenges of visibility—of what’s obvious and to whom and why—that the film so masterfully explores. To better appreciate this, one has but to ponder the wildly complex, erotic interpenetrations and displacements among Marais’s three characters and the actor whose body fleshes them out.
In one of the film’s climactic scenes, Cocteau—the better to realize the unreal—directed that an actual arrow be shot into Marais’s back, fortified with cork beneath his Avenant costume. If that doesn’t yet amount to “total art,” it certainly comes close to a total commitment to the quest.