“Give Me Back My Beast!”: On Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast”

by Ashley Naftule

He don’t do the wild things
that he did before
He used to act bad
Used to, but he quit it
It make me so sad
Cause I know that he did it
for me
(Yes he did now)
And I can see
(It’s still in the streets)
His heart, out in the street

-The Shangri-Las, “Out In The Street”

Greta Garbo was rumored to have said “Give me back my Beast!” after she saw Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bete for the first time. When the Beast (played by Jean Marais, wearing five hours worth of very expressive make-up on his furry face) is transformed into the handsome Prince (also played by Marais) and scoops up Belle (played by Josette Day) to fly her away to his kingdom, it looks it should be a happy ending. The two of them, arms entangled, leap up into the sky and float away in one of the cinema’s most gorgeous and poetic closing shots. It should be a fairy tale ending… so why does it make me feel like Garbo when I watch it?

While Cocteau’s B&W film served as inspiration for the animated Disney film (whose live action remake came out over the weekend), it couldn’t be more different in terms of its tone and vibe. Watching Cocteau’s film is like floating through a dream. People run across bridges in slow motion, billowing fabric behind them. Arms jut out of the walls of Beast’s castle, holding up candelabras. Statues come to life and fire arrows into the chests of thieves, turning them into Beasts. Even the plot itself seems to mimic the logic of dreams, in that it’s full of holes that never get addressed (why is the key to Beast’s pavilion so important when the thieves end up breaking into it from the roof? Why does Cocteau make a big deal about Beast having five items that give him his power and then never bring it up again?). Like a dream, it feels like it makes sense on a subconscious level, even if it doesn’t all come together neatly.

Cocteau’s film also saddles Belle with a larger family than in the animated version. In addition to an incompetent father, she has two wicked sisters and a rogue-ish brother (who is the only member of her family that really seems to care about her, though that doesn’t stop him from using her to get to Beast’s wealth). Her brother has a friend named Avenant (played by, you guessed it, Marais) who is trying to woo Belle, to no avail. Avenant is the closest thing Cocteau’s film has to a Gaston, though he’s much less of a douchebag than that preening bag of muscles.

Cocteau’s film establishes the basic beats that the Disney version uses: Girl meets Beast/Beast takes Girl hostage/Girl gets Stockholm Syndrome and falls in love with Beast/Beast dies because drama/Beast comes back as Handsome Prince Beefcake/Roll Credits. The major difference, though, between Cocteau’s film and the later remakes is that reaction Garbo had to the ending. The feeling that Beast’s transformation is an unhappy ending pretending to be a happy one.

Cocteau himself admits that was his intent while making the film:

My story would concern itself mainly with the unconscious obstinacy with which women pursue the same type of man, and expose the naivete of the old fairy tales that would have us believe that this type reaches its ideal in conventional good looks. My aim would be to make the Beast so human, so sympathetic, so superior to men, that his transformation into Prince Charming would come as a terrible blow to Beauty, condemning her to a humdrum marriage and a future that I summed up in that last sentence of all fairy tales: ‘And they had many children.’

The reason why this happy/sad ending works so well for me is that it reminds of that song by The Shangri-Las — Out In The Street. I have a soft spot for 60’s girl group songs. I went to a LOT of weddings when I was growing up, and the only music that hit my sweet spot was when the DJ would drop some Ronettes or Crystals into the mix. Aside from the perfection of Be My Baby, the genre’s crowning achievement is the mournful beauty of Out In The Street. It sums up “be careful what you wish for” better than just about any other song I’ve ever heard.

The song’s narrator is lamenting how her lover is a shadow of his former self. Once a gang member out on the streets, wearing dirty old black boots, he gave it all up to be with her. And it’s diminishing him, killing his spirit one day at a time. He loves her enough to have given up his old life, but his heart is still out in those streets. And she sets him free, not just because she knows it’s the right thing to do, but because she doesn’t love him the way he is now. She loved that wild, untamed punk running wild in the streets. It was that quality that drew her to him, and now that he’s repressed that to be with her, the thrill is gone.

It’s a Catch-22 that so many of us face in relationships: we smooth out our rough edges to better fit into the lives of our partners, often failing to realize (until it’s too late) that it was those rough edges that made them interested in us in the first place. The Onion nailed this vicious circle down perfectly with this piece.

It’s one of the biggest tug of wars civilized humans have to deal with- that push-pull between comfort and risk. We want security, we want some measure of predictability, we want things and people that we can rely on… and yet we also want to destablize those fixed points so they don’t entrap us. It’s why we turn to drugs, gambling, online flame wars, base-jumping, or sabotaging perfectly good relationships- we crave chaos just as much as we crave order.

The tragedy of Beast’s transformation is that he becomes the very thing Belle has scorned her entire life: just another lantern-jawed man. As a Beast, he was a figure of power and menace. He lived in an enchanted castle. He was a being of magic and mystery and pained dignity. She didn’t fall in love with him in spite of his beastliness- it was BECAUSE he was a Beast. Now that he’s a prince, she’ll get flown away to some mundane castle, where the candles aren’t being held by disembodied arms, where she’ll probably get taken for granted by her prince because he’s handsome again and everybody wants him.

She’s doomed to live the life her gold-digging harpy sisters wanted, and the worst part is that Belle’s not even a petty enough person to take some schadenfreude from that fact. Her heart is out in the woods, knocking on heavy wooden doors, waiting for ghostly arms to usher her inside so she can be Love’s prisoner again.

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