Eczema, migraines, and exhaustion were just some of the beastly ailments endured by poet/artist and first-time feature director Jean Cocteau while conjuring Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et Le Bête, his modernist take on the classic fairy tale, a work that stands as one of French cinema’s most influential films. And the pressures were not solely creative. According to Brit writer Christopher Frayling’s lively commentary (another by American critic Arthur Knight is worthy for biographical details), Cocteau’s film was expected to resuscitate France’s war-battered movie industry almost single-handedly.
Yet even as a relative novice, Cocteau knew what he wanted: simple effects (inspired by the in-camera trickery of Georges Melies), lighting lifted from Vermeer’s interiors, hallways from ”Citizen Kane”’s Xanadu, and documentary-style cinematography (glorious in this restored print) to keep the enchantment from being too precious. Most important, his Beast (Jean Marais, with an enormous assist from the fabulously expressive mask) is a profoundly pitiable creature who, like Kong and Frankenstein’s monster, grips our deepest emotions.