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BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
The Criterion Collection

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jean Marais, Josette Day
Director:  Jean Cocteau
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono, Dolby Digital 5.1 (opera score)
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  93 Minutes
Release Date:  February 11, 2003

“Once upon a time…”

Film ****

Criterion has earned a small part of its reputation as the best DVD producing studio in the business by taking other company’s lackluster releases and turning them into bona fide special editions (see:  Rushmore, Armageddon, The Rock, Brazil, etc.).  But now, they’ve turned their attention to one of their own, replacing their formerly good version of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast with a stunning new disc that exceeds the previous one in every way imaginable.

Fans of the original release will no doubt recall Criterion’s restoration efforts, bringing a somewhat dirty and ravaged negative up to speed for modern digital audiences.  But with the recent discovery of an even better working print, and an even more intense restoration effort, the new final product was more glorious to look at than ever before.  But not content to merely re-release their title with a better picture and transfer, Criterion also opened their vaults and found plenty of new features to go along with it, making it a disc that fans will happily snatch up with both hands…more on that further down.

Beauty and the Beast was Jean Cocteau’s second film effort after The Blood of a Poet.  In his first film, he experimented with Melies-styled camera tricks that made simple bits of enchantment possible.  Beauty was a much more ambitious effort in both technical prowess and cinematic scope.  Made in France during 1945-1946, when the war had ravaged the economy, nothing could be taken for granted.  Even a deer carcass for a single shot proved difficult to come by!

The fairy tale by Madame Leprince de Beaumont was very well known, and Cocteau approached her text with the eye of both a filmmaker and a poet.  He translated her story into startling cinematic imagery that, for my money, makes Beauty still one of the most magical of all films, even in our day and age of endless computer effects possibilities.

The castle of the Beast (the magnificent Marais) is alive with magic and atmosphere.  Candles seem to light themselves as a humble merchant strolls past.  Human arms in walls and tables act as silent servants.  The statues’ eyes follow those who walk past with passivity.  Gates open and close by themselves.  The great halls and rooms are like a cross breed between Xanadu and the House of Usher. 

Belle (the luminous Day) lives in a world that’s quite the opposite:  normal.  She has a father she loves dearly, two vain and selfish sisters, a foolish brother and a would-be suitor (Marais again) who ends up with designs for his own fortune.  When her father learns of his lost ship coming to port, meaning the end of their family’s struggles, the sisters heap material demands on him as he goes off to meet it.  Belle’s request?  Only a rose.

But when he starts back home penniless again because creditors have seized his ship, he ends up in the strange castle of the Beast, and meeting its master when he plucks the rose from his garden.  The penalty is death, he is informed, unless one of his three daughters returns within three days to die in his place.

Not wanting her father to die, Belle sets off in secret for the lair of the Beast.  There, she is surprised to find him a magnanimous and courteous host, despite his fearful appearance.  He falls for her…can she learn to love him as well?

The story proceeds along familiar lines, but with an innovative twist or two from Cocteau himself.  We don’t learn the true nature of the Beast until the end (though those who know the story won’t be surprised by it).  Returned to his princely form, Belle confesses she misses the Beast.  So did most audience members, including Greta Garbo, who is reported to have shouted at the screen, “Give me back my Beast!”.

There are many fans of the modern Disney animated version of this story, including myself, but I always make an effort to point those fans toward this original telling of the tale by Cocteau.  It replaces cute singing and dancing housewares with a feeling of real magic and enchantment.  Disney’s Beast may live in a children’s dream of an enchanted castle, but Cocteau’s vision is the one that produces the most surreal and atmospheric version. 

Like David Lynch would many years later, Cocteau seemed in tune with the world of dreams, and had the uncanny ability to photograph the strange look and behavior of the subconscious world.

Video ****

Fans of the original Criterion release are in for an amazing treat…this disc is gorgeous.  Having seen this movie many times before on DVD, this new offering is a revelation.  I’ve always considered this one of the most beautiful black and white films ever crafted, and now, it’s even more so.  The print is cleaner than ever before…in fact, the total number of spots or marks might be no more than you’d see on a movie just a few years old…remarkable!

The images convey startling new detail.  What was once a little soft and/or murky plays with crystalline clarity, with amazing definition and a broader range of grayscale, including purer whites and darker blacks.  Cocteau’s sense of lighting has never been more benefited, as the stronger contrast levels make for an even more atmospheric and magical experience.  I found myself lost in this world more than ever before.  When a transfer and restoration can make that kind of difference in a movie going experience, it’s nothing short of miraculous.

Audio:  Original **1/2, Opera ****

The original soundtrack works well, and boasts some very strong dynamic range for a simple and decades-old mono presentation.  A few artifacts of aging remain, like a bit of background hiss noticeable in the quietest moments, or some distortions in the stronger music offerings (mostly right around the 1:02 mark).  For a picture from the 40s, these are acceptable, but still worth noting.

The real treat is the 5.1 presentation of Philip Glass’ opera, which he composed specifically to play alongside Cocteau’s film perfectly.  You can leave the English subtitles on and listen to the operatic version without missing anything in the movie.  It’s an extraordinary piece of music, well reflecting the imagery on screen, and with a full, rich, dynamic sound you’ve come to expect from 5.1 capabilities.  Enjoy the film both ways; each one is a rewarding experience in its own right.

Features ****

Wow…where to begin?  I’ll do my best not to miss anything.  In addition to the Philip Glass score, which begins on screen with a few of his own notes, there are two terrific full length commentary tracks.  The first is a repeat of the original 1991 by film historian Arthur Knight, and the second one is a new 2001 offering by writer and cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling.  Both are terrific supplements to the viewing experience, and cinema students especially will enjoy them.

A 1995 documentary Screening at the Majestic features some modern crew and cast interviews, including the late great Jean Marais and cinematographer Henri Alekan, who is also the subject of his own feature interview on the disc.  There are also galleries of publicity stills and rare behind-the-scenes photos, Cocteau’s original theatrical trailer, the 1995 trailer for the restored version, and another of Criterion’s excellent DVD booklets.  It contains a reprint of the original fable translated into English, essays and notes by both Cocteau and his biographer, photos, technical notes and more.

Oh, yes, there is a short piece on the film’s restoration as well…it’s a little different from Criterion’s usual offering (or the one included on the previous disc release), but definitely worth a look.

My only regret overall is that this version doesn’t include the interesting “Cinematic Eye” documentary piece that was offered on the original DVD.  That note aside, this is still one amazing features package.

Summary:

With a beauty of a new transfer and a beast of a features package, Criterion proves themselves the only DVD producing studio capable of bettering Criterion.  For true film lovers, this magnificent re-release is the year’s first must-own DVD.