Insert a very dramatic, ominous organ because welcome to Monstrous Babes, a semi-regular series of retrospectives and reviews on films where the main romance is centered around a human and a monster. “Monster” is going to be a totally subjective term for this series and I’m mostly going to be writing about movies that set off the good ol’ brainworms. Today, we will be going slightly academic with Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast!
When I began this column, I thought it would be mostly humorous and me joaning on the more ridiculous fare of the monster lover genre, but never did I expect I would fall head over heels for a story that I have seen redone a million times. I mean, I did my first piece for this series on Phantom of the Opera, for God’s sake! However, this will be a first in this series where I watch the oldest known filmed adaptation of a monster lover tale. For this, my friends, let’s (not) jump in a time machine to 1946 with Jean Cocteau’s magnum opus, Beauty and the Beast!
If you are considered a millennial (birth years beginning with 1981 and ending with 1996), you have seen an adaptation of the classic fairy tale, written originally by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, but you are more familiar with the abridged version by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. (Whew, lots of syllables and last names!) From a quick perusal of Wikipedia, between 1987 until 2017, there has been a total of 9 film adaptations and 3 TV adaptations of Beauty and the Beast, not counting supplemental material related to the Disney adaptation!
As an aging millennial, I am very familiar with Disney’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast as it was played at daycare, elementary school and impromptu Disney nights in undergrad, but I will confess that I am not terribly fond of it. While I oddly identified with Ariel and Meg as my quintessential “what Disney Princess do you identify as,” I was never enamored by Belle’s allure nor capable of the amount of patience that she gave to The Beast in this adaptation. But I recognize it as critical to a lot of the devotees of the Mouse so I decided to spare it being read through my critical lens.
However, revisiting the 1991 Disney adaptation would not have fit into this column as I would have to use all my existing brain cells to do a horniness/desire perspective on a Disney movie. I could have very much done it but I choose not to! Naturally, the Jean Cocteau version of Beauty and the Beast is a fit for this column as not only is it the first adaptation of the fairy tale ever, but the history surrounding it provides plenty of context into critical readings of the film.
In light of the debacle surrounding the “exclusively gay moment” that Disney was marketing in the 2017 live action remake of the 1991 animated film, Cocteau’s adaptation garnered new attention from contemporary viewers as many internet pundits loudly proclaim that there was a queer Beauty and the Beast adaptation! Is there a deep irony that this is the second film I have covered in this column that has had a gay director? Maybe! Cocteau was historically not shy about his gayness (nor his Nazi sympathizing…) as he was openly involved in a relationship with Jean Marais, the movie’s titular Beast himself!
As a result, Beauty and The Beast has a rather queer flair to it in its theatrics, dreamy special effects, and delicious, delicious camp that just made my little gay heart SOAR. While this will not be an exact analysis of the queerness of the film, having a gay perspective in the director’s seat definitely lends itself to the more egalitarian aspects of Belle and the Beast’s relationship.
Compared to its famous Disney great great grandchild, Cocteau’s take of the tale is closer to the original fairy tale with Belle not being the only child of a bumbling but well-meaning inventor, but the only good person in a family of assholes. Belle, played by Josette Day, is closer to a Cinderella figure with two comically evil and vain sisters and a useless “scoundrel” brother whose BFF is Avenant, our Gaston, who is — for the complete lack of better words — still sexually assault-y, but somehow understands that Belle does not want to marry him? (We’ll spend more time on him later because I promise he’s the only relevant character in Belle’s life that applies directly to this review!) In true fairy tale fashion, Belle is so undeniably good and pure in this film that she has not a single selfish bone in her body as she simply asks her father for a rose on his journey that would end with him meeting the Beast.
As Belle’s father makes his way unknowingly to the Beast’s castle, he is greeted to a dreamy liminal space where disembodied hands hold candelabras, human faces on busts as they emit smoke out of their mouth, and of course, our beastly boyfriend, the Beast. More or less, if you’ve seen the Disney version, it directly follows the events happening in this movie, more or less. However, one key difference in Cocteau’s film that contrasts wildly from the familiar Disney version: The Beast acknowledges that his survival and morality is in the hands of Belle and he’s submissive to her!
OK, not just submissive in the traditional dictionary sense, but also as if he is a sub acknowledging the rules laid out by his domme. While that is a wildly NSFW take, I realize, but it struck me how he immediately understands that he is in the mercy of her hands. He stands behind her during their promised 7 ‘o clock supper and kneels before her as she sits in a grandiose “Master of the House” chair, adorn in the most beautiful dresses and jewelry as if she is royalty. When it comes to Beauty and the Beast just as a cultural property, the discourse surrounding it really being about Stockholm Syndrome always comes up as a criticism against the romance between Belle and the Beast, but watching Cocteau’s take on the relationship felt fresh as if it was new.
The role reversal between the beauty and her beast is even acknowledged in the film! Belle even states that he is the master of this castle thus the master of their relationship and the Beast calmly replies, “No, there is no master here but you.” It is not only acknowledging that Belle has the power within the castle, but she ultimately is in control of their relationship as he quietly accepts her rejecting his marriage proposals.
Earlier, I mentioned that Avenant, Belle’s brother’s creepy bro and our Gaston, is important to not only this story, but this review, right? That’s because we got some dual casting goin’ on, baby! Jean Marais plays both the Beast and Avenant which sets up a dichotomy of “outwardly beautiful = ugly on the inside” and “outwardly ugly = beautiful on the inside” in the more literal sense. Avenant cuts a nice figure on the screen (thanks to the director knowing how to frame his man), but he is just as rotten as the rest of Belle’s selfish family because as Belle says, “There are men far more monstrous than you though they conceal it well.”
While the film does lean into the same “beauty can be found on the inside” theme as the Disney adaptation, Cocteau frames the status of being a monster as one being selfish, unsympathetic, and malicious with Avenant and Belle’s siblings being conventionally attractive but greedy dickwads who only sees Belle’s newfound relationship with the Beast as a meal ticket out of debt. Even Belle herself calls herself a monster for bending to the whims of her siblings!
Despite being on a timer that results in his possible death where selfishness would be not a bad idea, the Beast does not wish to be selfish, but we see that he desires to be loved and be seen as himself rather than his furry visage. He truly loves Belle so much that even though he knows that her returning to him late would be the end of him. The Beast and Avenant are so connected not just in the aforementioned dichotomy, but by which the element of beasthood is transferred at the the end of the film. By an arrow shot by a living statue of the goddess Diana, Avenant himself becomes a beast (not THE Beast) and the Beast returns to his normal princely self.
Sadly, I felt the same tinge of disappointment in the Disney adaptation’s ending when I finally saw the Beast’s human form, but instead of a wedding held in the future, the Prince and Belle literally fly off into the sunset and kiss while they dreamily float into the ether of love. While I could give academic article levels on this film alone, it serves as the granddaddy of monster lover media, but it also presents a tale that is indeed old as time in a fresher light. As Greta Garbo allegedly yelled at the screening of this, “GIVE ME BACK MY BEAST!” Next time on Monstrous Babes, we are going back to the recent past and we are going to be talking about some babelicious living dead girls with Return of the Living Dead 3!
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