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Orpheus (1950)

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Thanks to a local revival house, I’m jumping ahead a bit – to something really funky.

Surrealist Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in post-war Paris; Orpheus (Jean Marais) is a famous yet bored poet, admired by squads of teenage fangirls and hated by lesser poets and early Beat auteurs, while Eurydice (Marie Dea) is his adoring wife, just newly pregnant and eager to give Orpheus the news at the start of the film.  Cocteau adds a few twists, though – starting with “the Princess” (Maria Casares), an mysterious and elegant woman Orpheus spots at a cafe in the film’s first scene.  She’s ostensibly the sugar mama to a lesser poet, Cegaste (Edouard Dermit), who starts a big brawl at the cafe and then is struck by a car as he’s trying to flee the scene.  “The Princess” orders Cegaste carried to her car so she can bring him to the hospital – but before she leaves, she orders Orpheus to join her and help.

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Orpheus is puzzled, but complies – and then is more puzzled when they pass the hospital, even more puzzled when he sees that Cegaste is already dead and the Princess is still going on.  But that’s nothing compared to his confusion when the Princess meets up with the driver of the car that killed Cegaste.  Or the cryptic messages the radio keeps broadcasting as they drive.  Or when they end up at a ruined mansion and the Princess orders Orpheus to go sit in a side room and not ask any questions.  Or when he sneaks out of the room anyway – just in time to see the Princess seemingly bring Cegaste back to life, only to declare herself the spirit of Death and then lead Cegaste out of the room by walking through a mirror, leaving Orpheus to find his way home alone.

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So….that happened.

As it turns out, the Princess isn’t the single Spirit of Death; she’s more like one of Death’s emissaries, and Orpheus is technically her next assignment after Cegaste.  But she’s started to fall for him, and is reluctant to end his life, spending the next several nights sneaking out into his room through his mirror and longingly watching him sleep.  Orpheus is equally obsessed with Princess Death; he finds the same radio station broadcasting the same cryptic messages and obsessively writes them all down, turning them into poems.  When he thinks he sees her in a crowd, he chases her through the streets.  And when Eurydice dies herself, it’s a little unclear whether Orpheus goes after her because he’s hoping to get her back, or because he hopes that Princess Death is back there too.

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Cocteau uses a lot of the same dream-like, weird imagery as he did in Beauty and The Beast; most through the use of deceptively simple camera tricks. There are multiple shots where it’s obvious that Cocteau shot the scene in reverse – gloves flying onto someone’s hands, Princess Death re-animating Cegaste – but the fact that you know how it was done doesn’t change the fact that it still looks really unnatural.  And for this film, the unnaturalness was the point.  Another scene where Princess Death’s henchman Heurtebise (François Périer) is leading Orpheus through the underworld is done in a weird sort of split-screen, with Orpheus walking after Heurtebise, who glides ahead of him in an early take on the Spike Lee dolly shot.

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Heurtebise has is own subplot throughout as well; he’d been left behind after Cegaste’s death to keep an eye on Orpheus and help out when Princess Death came for him, but he ends up taking a shine to Eurydice himself, pining for her just as Princess Death is pining for Orpheus.

In Eurydice’s case, though, she only has eyes for Orpheus; meanwhile Orpheus is obsessed with Death.  And that seems to be Cocteau’s ultimate theme – how artists can overcome Death through their work, and how sometimes confronting their own mortality gets them closer to the very vulnerability that will ensure their artistic success.  Orpheus visits the underworld more than just once in this telling, and is released back to Earth both times, with Death ultimately declaring him “Immortal” through his work.  But Orpheus is still human, and even though the end sees him happily reunited with Eurydice, he’ll still die someday; as the film’s most haunting line states, “Look at yourself in mirrors throughout your life and you’ll see death doing its work.”

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A Matter Of Life And Death (1946)

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Here, then, is my verbatim initial reaction to A Matter of Life And Death, as I shared it on Facebook with my friends:  “Well.  That movie was weird as all hey.”

On paper it doesn’t sound like it would be; fantastical, sure, but at its core it starts out as a pretty straightforward romance. It opens in the tail end of World War II, with RAF Squad Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) in a really tight spot; he’s just completed a bombing run over Germany, but his plane took heavy fire and is heavily damaged. The responsible Carter has ordered his crew to bail out, but his own chute is damaged, so he’s facing certain death. During what are about to be his final moments, he hails the motherland on his radio, to both let someone know what happened and have one last few moments of human connection.  The radio operator who speaks with him is June (Kim Hunter), an American based in England, and the pair indulge in some flirtation during Carter’s final moments; he asks where she’s stationed, joking that “perhaps I’ll come as a ghost and visit.”  Then he thanks the tearful June and jumps out of the plane, saying that he’d prefer that to crashing.

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But – miraculously, Carter survives his jump.  And equally as miraculously, he’s landed on the very English beach where June is based.  Hooray!  He quickly finds her, and the pair spend a day or so celebrating his escape and getting further acquainted. Then one of their whirlwind dates is interrupted by a strange little fellow dressed like a French aristocrat, who can stop time.  Carter is the only one who can see him; this is because, the man explains, Carter’s supposed to be dead.  The man introduces himself only as “Conductor 71” (Marius Goring), and he’d been charged with collecting Carter’s soul at the moment of his death – but Carter had been flying in heavy fog, and Conductor 71 had simply lost him.  But now that he’s found Carter, it was time to go.  …Carter, understandably, says “nothing doing” to that idea – and not just for the very human fear of death, but because he had fallen in love with June and was now determined to say. Couldn’t they just leave him be and let him enjoy some longer time with her?  Conductor 71 takes Carter’s plea to his boss, and finally returns a few days later to say that Carter has been granted a chance for an appeal, in heaven, in three days.  He can choose whomever he wants from among the dead as his defense attorney; if he wins, he can stay.

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Now that doesn’t sound all that odd up to that point. Again, fantastical, but not weird.  June doesn’t quite believe Carter’s supernatural threat, of course, and that sets up a subplot with her consulting a doctor friend (Roger Livesey) to treat Carter’s “delusions” with brain surgery, so there’s even some doubt raised as to what’s happening with Carter in the first place.

But then Carter’s trial in heaven begins.

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I might even have been able to buy into the trial if it was indeed about the straightforward “Peter Carter: love or death” question the film had set up to that point.  Instead, however, the trial was a deep dive into Anglo-American mid-1940s relations and an examination of each nations’ values, morals, and character. The script attempts to tie that to June and Carter by pointing out that Carter is from England and June is from the USA, but it reads way more like a grudge match between nations, as the counsel for the prosecution is ostensibly the spirit of the first man killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill and has stacked the jury with a selection of people who died in other wars with England over the years; an Irish revolutionary, a Chinese man who died in the Boxer rebellion, a French footsoldier from Agincourt…Then, when Carter’s defense counsel objects and asks to swap out the jury for one comprised entirely of Americans, each juror is replaced with an American whose ethnic background matches the nationality of the juror they were replacing, in a celebration of America’s melting-pot identity.

The trial finally and eventually gets around to discussing the actual case of Carter v. Death, allowing both Carter and June to make their testimonies thanks to some supernatural fiddling, and it is The Power Of Love that makes the more compelling case in the trial at the end of the day.  Which, let’s face it, is pretty much how you’d expect a romantic fantasy like this to go.  And that’s why I was so completely baffled that the film took that detour into An Examination Of The English Character, and why it took up nearly the full final act of the film.  What did any of that have to do with Carter and June, really?  Why did it go on as long as it did?

Interestingly, I think I found an answer.  Filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were on the outs with the UK’s military propaganda department (the “Ministry of Information”) because of their previous film The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp As sympathetic as Blimp ultimately was, the UK’s military still felt it made career soldiers look a little foolish, and were holding Powell and Pressburger at arms’ length a bit.  The filmmakers wanted to get back into the Ministry of Information’s good graces, so when the Ministry’s head suggested they work on something that would “show the Americans we like them,” they jumped at the chance. In the later years of World War II, the UK was bristling at the behavior of American GIs stationed within their country; compared to the UK soldiers stationed in Europe, Americans had relatively cushy digs and spent a lot of free time flirting with (and often knocking up) the English lasses in the surrounding villages. English civilians complained famously that they were “overpaid, oversexed, and over here”.  But the UK and the USA were still Allies, and the Ministry of information wanted to make nice.  

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The American GI/English girl dynamic lead to Carter and June’s love affair; this time it was the dashing English soldier sweeping the American girl off her feet.  It also explains the heaping of praise on America itself, and the soul-searching of the English character. The sequence with the jury went on a surprisingly long time, and as weird as I thought it was, I was also fascinated at the clear-eyed admission about England’s frequently-tumultuous history.  True, it could have been setting up the various jury members as being “prejudiced against England” by virtue of their people’s history, but even just mentioning those various wars throughout the life of the British Empire underscores that yeah, actually, England hasn’t had the most neighborly geopolitical presence.  It felt like a surprisingly self-aware stance in the aftermath of the Second World War.

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And that’s all just the script and plot; I haven’t even gotten into the look of the film, or any of the production elements.  The film is a mix of both color and black-and-white sequences, but in a flip of what you’d expect, the color sequences are set on Earth, while Heaven – or, as the film coyly calls it, “the other world” – is entirely in black and white.  And this appears to be intentional – during one of his visits to Carter, Conductor 71 stops to admire a rose, sighing that “One is starved for Technicolor where I’m from.”  Most of the architecture of “Heaven” looks somewhat like an airport lobby, save for the courtroom – which has a central platform that looks weirdly like Pride Rock from The Lion King – and an enormous escalator, which connects “Heaven” to “Earth” and which is ostensibly the path that Carter should have trod after his plane crash.  This apparently was where the production team really blew most of the budget; the filmmakers brought in engineers from London’s Passenger Transit Board to assist with construction, and the set crew started three months before filming began because it was just that big (each of the 106 steps was 20 feet wide and the whole thing was flanked by statues of famous philosophers like Plato and King Solomon).  The eye-popping piece features in a few scenes, and also inspired the re-titling of the film for American audiences as “Stairway to Heaven”.

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As strange as I thought this film was, I was even more surprised to learn that bits of it inspired scenes from two more contemporary film franchises.  The design of “Heaven” influenced the look of the “Limbo” scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and the story goes that this is because both J.K. Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe were both big fans of Matter of Life and Death.  And there’s apparently a very good reason why that first scene between Carter and June reminded me so much of Steve Rogers talking to Peggy Carter in the first Captain America film – it was a direct homage.

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Gilda (1946)

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I feel like the writers of Gilda should have picked just one plot and stuck with it.

It starts out as a film noir, with Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) bumming around in Buenos Aires and scamming people by gambling with rigged dice. One night when one of Farrell’s targets tries to rob his “winnings” back, a mysterious and elegantly-dressed stranger comes to his rescue.  The stranger introduces himself as Bailin Mundson (George Macready) and, sizing Farrell up as a gambling shark, invites him to an exclusive casino he knows about.  “But they won’t let you use your own dice there,” he warns, calling out Farrell for cheating.  Farrell turns up and finds a way to cheat anyway – at cards instead of dice – and is brought before the casino owner, who turns out to be Mundson.  Thinking fast, Farrell says that it was all a stunt to prove to Mundson that Farrell could work for him – what better way to catch a cheater than to have someone who knew what cheaters did?

Mundson takes him up on it, and Farrell quickly rises in the ranks and gains Mundson’s trust.  So much so that when Mundson returns from a business trip, Farrell is one of the first people Mundson calls to share the news that he got married while he was away, inviting Farrell to his mansion to meet his new wife Gilda (Rita Hayworth).  However – not only have Farrell and Gilda already met – they were once a couple, and they’d had a really ugly breakup.  Gilda and Farrell keep this fact to themselves, but gradually their former relationship creates….tension.

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Gilda only married Mundson as a rebound from Farrell, and first tries flaunting that in Farrell’s face.  But Farrell knows her game and plays up the dutiful-employee angle, swooping in to intervene with messages “from your husband” when Gilda starts chatting up other guys in the casino.  She doubles down on the flirting, he doubles down on the bodyguard-ing.  Every so often the pair also have a private spat about their old relationship and Whether They Still Feel Things For Each Other, all while trying to keep the whole thing secret from Mundson.

Now, if that had been the only plot, that would have been enough.  But the film also throws in a subplot about Mundson’s involvement in a shady business deal involving former Nazi industrialists and tungsten mines that I had a hard time keeping up with.  I’m not even certain how or why this was added to the film at all; it may have been added as an excuse or a plot device to explain some of Mundson’s behavior, and I found myself both puzzled by that plot and ultimately not really paying attention to it.

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Also, there’s a big chunk of the film where Farrell’s treatment of Gilda gets really, really icky, to the point where I was starting to be reminded of Gaslight(I will withhold details for the sake of spoilers, but there’s some elaborate manipulation and fakeouts.)  Farrell isn’t a prince, but for me that bit really tipped him over from being an anti-hero into being a full-on jerk, and that part of the film got pretty uncomfortable to watch.

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Part of what made that bit uncomfortable was the film’s treatment of Gilda.  This was Rita Hayworth’s breakout role, and Gilda is written as a wild femme fatale and super-flirt; one scene even sees her doing a night club act which verges on being a strip tease (all she removes is a long glove, but she does so very seductively).  The film uneasily suggests that the way Farrell treats her is justified as a result.

It also made issues for Hayworth after the film.  She was able to really sell that bombshell character, but the real Hayworth was a shy, quiet romantic who longed to have a quiet home and family life.  The “bombshell” image from this film lingered, causing Hayworth a lot of frustration in her personal life; she once complained to a friend that the men she dated “go to bed with Gilda, but wake up with me.”  Personally, I wish that Gilda the film treated its star a little better.


As a footnote: I am pleased to reportthat this is my 200th Review for this blog.  I’ve also heard that there is a new edition of the 1001 Movies To See Before You Die book coming out in October, which will add a few more movies to the list; but I’m raring to go.  Thanks for reading so far, and stick around!

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The Big Sleep (1946)

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I was a wee bit unimpressed with Bogart and Bacall’s earlier To Have and Have Notbut only because the script was a little meh.  This noir adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel is much better.

Bogart plays private eye Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s go-to detective for most of his novels. He’s summoned to the home of General Sternwood, a wealthy – but frail and grievously ill – retired general living with his two grown daughters, Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Vivian (Lauren Bacall).  Sadly, neither daughter is all that well-behaved, and Carmen has found herself the target of a blackmail attempt the General asks Marlowe to handle.

It all seems pretty straightforward, so Marlowe accepts and is about to head out when the General starts reminiscing about a former employee, Sean Regan, who used to take care of these kinds of things until the day that he mysteriously disappeared.  But when Marlowe asks further about Regan, the General waves him off – it’s not important, just stick to the blackmail case, kthxbye. Then as he’s leaving, Vivian stops Marlowe at the door for a word; she also thinks that the General wants Marlowe to look into the vanished Regan, and tells him to leave that case alone.  Marlowe agrees – it’s what he was asked to do anyway – but is now even more curious, of course.

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So of course the simple blackmail case gets more complicated and does end up involving Regan – as well as Carmen, Vivian, an antiques dealer named Geiger, three of Geiger’s lackeys, a night club owner named Mars, some photos, gambling debts, two of the Sternwood’s chauffeurs and a hapless errand runner named Harry Jones who’s just trying to help a girlfriend.  I’ve been annoyed in the past with noir detective plots that pile on more and more byzantine threads until the whole thing collapses; this, however, keeps everything impressively under control, and kept me guessing along with the film as it unfolded (if I talk back to the screen during a film at all, it’s a good sign).

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And you also have another chance to see Bogart and Bacall onscreen.  Their chemistry was the best bit of To Have and Have Not, and here they get a much better showcase for it, especially during an innuendo-laden scene where they’re at a night club and are discussing a mutual interest in horse racing:

Vivian: Well, speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they’re front-runners or come from behind, find out what their hole-card is. What makes them run.

Marlowe: Find out mine?

Vivian: I think so.

Marlowe: Go ahead.

Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.

Marlowe: You don’t like to be rated yourself.

Vivian: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?

Marlowe: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go.

Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.

Bogart and Bacall had recently married at the time they were filming, and I have a hunch that their evening after they’d shot this scene was very pleasant indeed.

Their chemistry actually lead to a headache for the directors – but not in the way you think.  The Big Sleep was originally completed in 1945, but then the studio sat on it so they could get through a whole backlog of war films; the studio’s fear was that audiences would soon lose interest after the end of the Second World War, and were rushing to get everything out.  One such film was an espionage drama that paired Bacall with another actor; that film, Confidential Agent, was a total flop.  The studio heads quietly panicked and took a second look at The Big Sleep to see if their faith in Bacall had been misplaced.  It wasn’t, of course, but the studio quickly spotted that there weren’t anywhere near enough scenes with Marlowe and Vivian flirting.  They decided to stack the deck in their favor by bringing the cast back in for some reshoots, unfortunately downplaying Martha Vickers’ part some in the process.  (Her character still inspires one of the film’s best quips, however; a moment after the perpetually-randy Carmen literally throws herself at Marlowe, he remarks to someone that “She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up!”)

The film has had some critics complain that the plot was too convoluted; again, I had no problems keeping up.  There is one twist, however, that has had everyone stumped over the years.  At one point, one of the Sternwood’s cars is pulled out of the ocean off the end of a pier, with one of their chauffeurs, Owen Taylor, dead inside.  The fence around the pier shows that the car drove through it as well, and the police discover that the body has a nasty lump on his head – although it’s not clear if the accident caused it, especially since Taylor has already been caught up in the unfolding blackmail plot.  But Marlowe leaves the police to investigate things with Taylor and continues to pursue the plot against the Sternwoods.

At some point, during filming, Bogart idly asked director Howard Hawks – just out of curiosity, what was the deal with Owen Taylor?  Was his death an accident, or suicide? Or murder?  Hawks thought, and had to admit he wasn’t sure.  He asked the screenwriters – William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman – and they realized they didn’t know.  The question ended up driving everyone nuts, and finally someone sent a telegram with the question to Raymond Chandler himself.  But – as Chandler later remarked to a friend – “Dammit, didn’t know either!”

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The Killers (1946)

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Ostensibly, this film was an adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway short story.  And the first twelve minutes are indeed a faithful recreation of the story, in which a pair of hit men bully the staff at a small town diner into letting them wait for their next hit, a local lummox everyone knows as “The Swede” (Burt Lancaster).  But when another patron escapes and slips off to warn The Swede, he says he’ll just stay put, waiting for the hit men to turn up – as surely they will – because he’s done bad things.  Hemingway’s story ends there, leaving the screenwriters to think up a reason why The Swede seemed so resigned to his fate.

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And you can kind of tell; the rest of the movie is a very different tone.  Not that it’s bad, though – it’s just different.  It follows a life insurance investigator, Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), as he unravels The Swede’s mystery, re-tracing his story from his days as a boxer to his induction into organized crime, where The Swede falls for his boss’s girl Kitty (Ava Gardner) and gets suckered into the actions that bring about his downfall.

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It’s actually a pretty clever mystery, with a couple different levels of double- and triple-crossing going on.  And all the performances are perfectly fine; Ava Gardener is the femme fatale here, but her fatale is so subtle that we’re suckered in along with The Swede.  Speaking of which, this was Burt Lancaster’s breakout role; he could have payed The Swede as a complete meathead or played him as completely besotted with Kitty, but wisely goes much subtler with it, getting out of the way and letting the story unspool.  O’Brien’s Reardon also goes subtle; it is still head-scratchingly odd that he’s been written as an insurance agent instead of the detective he clearly ought to be, but no one really remarks on it, and Reardon doesn’t make any dumb moves, and the rest of the story is unfolding in an interesting way so we quickly just go with it.

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See, there, it’s all fine.  But that first scene – the one directly based on Hemingway – is a masterwork of building tension and slow menace that the rest of the film never quite reaches again.  The story isn’t long enough to sustain a full run-time of action, but it’s definitely got enough suspense enough.

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It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

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Oh, of course I’d seen this before, are you kidding?

And so have most of you, probably.  This ode to small-town Americana and the nobility of a simple, ordinary life has become a holiday tradition for many; it’s a fantasy tale, a sort of American Christmas Carol in which our hero George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) gets some divine intervention one Christmas Eve to help him mend his ways.  Except unlike Scrooge, a miser who learns how his penury has hurt himself and others, George is an good but ordinary man who believes he’s done nothing for the world – and learns how great his impact has been on those around him.

This film has become so ubiquitous that people today mainly watch it as comfort food, or to riff on it.  A theater company I once worked with even turns it into a holiday event, staging a sort of karaoke-meets-Rocky-Horror-floor-show version of the whole thing with any guests welcome to play a role.  Parts are cast by lot, all the goofiest props get dragged out at the ready, and the party acts their way through the whole film, each person jumping up on stage to play their bits and then returning to the house to watch.  It’s completely and gloriously ridiculous – little kids could end up playing mean Mr. Potter, big burly guys find themselves playing George’s beloved Mary.  And each year, before we begin, the artistic director orders the person playing George to do their biggest and broadest and most over-the-top Jimmy Stewart imitation for a few seconds to get it out of their system before we begin.

….I say all that as context so you understand how very surprised I was that this rewatch kinda…got to me.

I resisted at first.  I mean, it’s It’s A Wonderful Life, for God’s sake.  I’ve seen it dozens of times, both the original and the act-along.  I played Zuzu one year, for God’s sake.  I should be immune to this film by now.  But for some reason – whether it was a middle-aged thing, or whether I’ve just immersed myself in classic film by now, or I’ve just had a bear of a week at work or something – I found myself really invested in the story this time, in George’s disappointment that he never got the chance to live the big dreams he had at the movie’s start and how his wings had been clipped by life, and how he thought that he was a failure – and all the while he was surrounded with love and laughter and was cherished by all who knew him.

I’ve always thought the scenes with George and his beloved Mary (Doris Day) were some of the best.  Day and Stewart have fine chemistry, but also those scenes crackle with wit. Mary is a sweet girl next door, but she is also sassy, and especially during the scene where George and Mary walk home after a dance singing “Buffalo Gals”, there’s some lovely, lively flirty stuff going on between them of the sort that keeps the sweet talk from getting too saccharine.  And that in turn leavens the sacchrine stuff so that it goes down way easier; and before you know it you’re sucked into watching George’s story and empathizing with this simple man.

The theater company act-alongs always end with a little holiday party; mixing and mingling over cookies and egg nog.   After our very first act-along, I walked over to the concession table to where the artistic director stood – and was shocked to see him sniffling and wiping away tears.  “Are you okay?” I asked him. He just looked up at me, then chuckled sheepishly as he sniffled more. “Damn Frank Capra,” he finally said.

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Beauty And The Beast (1946)

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This is yet another film I’m probably going to be thinking about a lot.

Plotwise, this 1946 film is a pretty straightforward adaptation of the French fairy tale – a cursed prince catches a traveler picking a rose from his garden, and condemns him to death unless he can send one of his three grown daughters to take his place, youngest daughter agrees, they gradually fall in love, etc.  The only thing this film adds is a family friend who’s another admirer for Belle and a fairly jerkish older brother with a gambling habit.  The friend is a more decent sort of fellow than the “Gaston” character from the Disney film – but the older brother is worse than Gaston, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if Disney smushed the two together to create Gaston in the first place.

But while the plot may be straightforward, the visuals are anything but. French surrealist Jean Cocteau was behind this film, and his vision included strikingly dreamlike details; especially in The Beast’s mansion, where glowing pavilions beckon, doors open and shut by themselves, statues breathe smoke, and the hallways are lit by living human arms holding candelabras.

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During the opening credits, Cocteau makes an appeal to the audience, pointing out that children tend to accept such fantastical elements and asking adult viewers for some of the same faith.  But these living statues and candelabras aren’t cozy and friendly like with Disney’s Lumiere; here they’re meant to be strange.  Not that they speak, or menace, or threaten; they just…are.  

Comparing Disney’s version with Cocteau’s is almost unavoidable, as the look of Disney’s Beast clearly owes a lot to the look of Cocteau’s as well – but not the temperament. Disney’s Beast is presented as a cruel man in a beastlike body that’s eventually won over with The Power Of Love, while with Cocteau’s Beast has a definite “animal” quality.  One scene that stuck with me in particular sees Belle exploring the grounds of the Beast’s castle, eventually coming to a door in a wall; behind the door she hears a strange watery sound.  She opens the door to find a small pond – and far at the other side of the pond, The Beast is lying on his stomach on the ground, lapping up water like a cat.

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But Belle takes the Beat’s behavior in stride; after watching a moment, she simply closes the door silently, leaving The Beast in peace.  And soon we also start to roll with whatever Cocteau and The Beast throw at us; magic mirror that lets you spy on other people? Sure. Magic horse that will take you places if you just whisper in its ear?  Yep.  Magic glove that will teleport you through walls?  Sure, why not.  We’re drawn into a childlike acceptance of fantasy, but the fantastical detail is surreal.

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In fact, the one place where the film has to hew with fairy tale convention – when the curse on The Beast is lifted, and he’s transformed into a handsome prince – feels strangely disappointing.  Even Belle seems unimpressed; instead of swooning over his transformation, she keeps him at arms’ length at first, asking herself “who’s this dude?”

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In a weird way, I think that Cocteau actually might have done a better job of capturing what listening to a fairy tale as a child actually feels like.  Dancing plates and singing candelabras are equally as strange as smoking statues, but it feels like the Disney elements are front-loading a reassurance that they’re nice, they’re friendly, they won’t hurt you.  Or they’re blatantly mean.  Spotting that kind of performative niceness or meanness is something that comes easily to adults – not so with kids, who just encounter the strange stuff as strange stuff, and process it at their own pace.  And sometimes they end up deciding something wholly different from what the storyteller intends (upon his first viewing of any of the Star Wars films, my nephew was convinced that Darth Vader was the hero, and absolutely could not be talked out of this belief).  For children, the strange stuff just is what it is, and your job is to figure out how it fits together.  And until you make up your mind all you can do is roll with it.