He would arrive on set wearing a crudely made mask, a veil of black paper clipped to his hat with clothespins. Under the mask he had painful, unsightly boils, caused by a not-yet diagnosed case of severe eczema. Eventually he would be hospitalized, midway through production.

With Beauty and the Beast, Jean Cocteau found a uniquely personal response to the post-war world. It was a strange time to be making such a stylized, fantastic film, and a particularly brazen act given his own tarnished reputation. France was healing from the occupation—Cocteau himself was being provided rations from a friend in America—and Cocteau was emerging from a period of professional failure. The production of the film had numerous issues and delays, and is as much a triumph of the craft of filmmaking as it is of the art. The film is now widely considered a classic, but may prove difficult to a modern viewer—characters are arch, dialogue is sparse, and performance is prioritized over nuance.

The genesis of the film came from a suggestion from Jean Cocteau's much younger lover, Jean Marais. Marais would be cast in the role of the Beast/Prince, and also of Avenant, Beauty's initial suitor. Marais suggested the classic fairy tale by Mme Leprince de Beaumont as Cocteau's first feature-length narrative film as both an entertaining diversion for a country deeply wounded, as well as a vehicle for his own acting triumph, performing three characters [the impudent Avenant, the savage Beast, and the saccharine Prince], one of which required performance under a costume that rendered him unrecognizable.

Cocteau had weathered occupied France by continuing to work on his art through different stage productions and poetry, including work with Nazi-sanctioned artists and venues. He made no apologies—it was not, to be fair, unusual for the French artistic elite to do so in the early days of the occupation—and sought to break down the artificial borders surrounding art, wanting to convince the French that a German creating art was just as valid as a Frenchman. He gained a reputation as a collaborator, however, after praising Arno Breker, the Nazi artist. He said France had misconstrued Hitler and the Nazis. He said that he thought Hitler was a pacifist and a patron of the arts and suggested that he may even be gay himself. 

The intellectual elite and literati of France distanced themselves in response. If Cocteau had hoped that his support of the Germans would be returned in kind, he was mistaken: they began canceling his shows and exhibits, and the officially-sanctioned media used homophobic and anti-Semitic dog whistles in their critical reviews of his writing and the plays he was able to mount.

By the time the production of the film had begun, Cocteau had withered. He suffered from untreated eczema, with boils appearing on his face. He had been free of his opium addiction, but the eczema would push him back to it. Marais said he was a shadow of himself, and Cocteau would write in his diary that the relationship he had with Marais had become perfunctory and sexual only on the rare occasion Marais initiated it.

This is to say that Jean Cocteau couldn’t help but create a film that crackled with personal meaning. 

Cocteau starts the film with a Brechtian-stroke: a crew member writes the credits on a chalkboard, and announces to the audience that we should take the film “as a child would.” The instruction to the audience is important: after the Breker affair, Cocteau wrote in his diary, “Woe is me, I am all nuance.” By telling the audience that we should accept the images and story on screen “as a child,” he pleads with us to view his film with a fresh pair of eyes, unencumbered by our previous perceptions of Cocteau the artist. 

To do so, of course, would be impossible. The families of France would have much to sympathize with Belle and her father. Merchant ships, lost at sea, leaves Belle's family in ruin. Cocteau even render's Belle's “evil sisters”, all dressed up and nowhere to go, less as evil and more as banal. They are, after all, yearning for a return to their pre-calamitous life. Their only sin is not realizing they are now at the same level as their own servants. Cocteau builds up the artificiality of the sisters: he films them framed by sedan chairs' windows, and their costuming is over-the-top decadent. Later in the film, when Belle returns home, hung sheets act as stage curtains for miniature scenes with the sisters.

Belle, played by Josette Day, is introduced in the film staring into a mirror. In contrast to her haughty and narcissistic sisters, however, she is polishing it, working with the servants. She is uncomplicated and sincere—as we expect fairy tale princesses—and Cocteau films her in ways that are intended to directly recall paintings by Van Meer. Avenant, her suitor, serves as an audience proxy as he greets her. He knows—as we know—that she is clearly the most beautiful of the sisters, and her father’s favorite. He knows—as we know—that it is absurd that she is acting as a Cinderella-type, when they still have servants. Yet, while the sisters request riches from their father when he goes to retrieve a recovered ship, Belle is left just as complicit in his damnation by the Beast when she requests a rose, “for none grow here.” After all, it is the father retrieving the rose, and not the riches, that causes the Beast to doom him to death. 

The Beast, meanwhile, is a self-loathing savage cast in the most flattering light possible. His Big Cat savagery is tamed by Belle, who goes in her father’s place. He laps up water from her hands, and we can’t help but see it for the submissive, highly erotic act that it is. Roger Ebert points out that, at dinner, she plays with a knife that “is more than a knife.” But see how the Beast observes her as she eats, never eating with her. With all his savagery, it is clearly Belle that has the sexual power over the Best.

Cocteau would have sympathized deeply with the Beast; his own self-loathing and self-described “ugliness” a clear parallel with the Beast. As Cocteau struggled with the disfiguring boils and sores on his face, his lover Marais plays the Beast who is also disfigured and repellent. Cocteau casts the Beast, however, as intriguing and alluring, despite his ugliness. He is sexual and primal—he kills a deer with his own hands and the blood smokes on his body and hands. The blood and smoke are literal manifestations of his own desire for Belle; she sees him, smoking, and he instantly feels too vulnerable towards her. He commands her to close her door: “Your look burns like fire.”

Beast’s self-pity and self-loathing lie in direct contrast to the savagery we expect of him, but her own looks at him—as he smokes with the blood on him, as he drinks from the castle pond or from her hands, or as he wanders the top of the castle with macabre stone animals all around him—belie the purity of her own heart. He tells her, “I have a good heart, but I am a monster.” We understand that the good heart is what should draw her to him, but that is undermined by the lustful gazes she casts at him.

And we can’t help but desire the Beast, even before Belle ostensibly does. When she is allowed to return home, she is asked if she loves the Beast. “No,” she replies, “I’m fond of him. It’s not the same thing.” Cocteau, struggling in his waning relationship to the Beauty to his Beast, Jean Marais, may have found this line particularly painful. 

The Beast “dies” from heartbreak. Belle has been gone from him too long. Of course he is magically transformed into the Prince through Belle’s love, but Cocteau adds a twist: the Prince looks like the original suitor Avenant, who has just been killed by a magical arrow at the statue of Diana. Belle’s disappointment is clear. Upon his transformation, the Prince says to Belle, “You look like you almost miss my ugliness.” 

The transformation of the Beast to the Prince is purposefully disappointing because, to Cocteau, the Beast is the real version. By having him mirror Avenant, and showing Belle’s subsequent disappointment, Cocteau shows that there was a superficiality to Belle’s infatuation with the Beast—that her lust was based on the ugliness, the beastliness, and not just on his “good heart.” When he asks her “Are you happy?” and she responds, “I’ll have to get used to it,” this is not your standard fairy tale happy ending. Of course she should be happy! Of course she should be even more madly in love with him now that he is no longer ugly! 

But Cocteau is used to the contradiction. In his world where art has no border, where his sexuality and physical appearance lie in direct conflict with each other, he shows our innermost desire: we will always want the Beast.

References and Further Reading:
Jean Cocteau, Beauty and the Beast: Diary of a Film
Geoffrey O’Brien, Beauty and the Beast: Dark Magic
James Williams, Jean Cocteau
Roger Ebert, “Great Films: Beauty and the Beast”