Jean Cocteau: mythopoeic movies – La Belle et la Bete 1946


Jean Cocteau: La Belle et la Bete 1946. Josette Day as Belle and Jean Marais as the Beast. The costumes, by Christian Berard and Marcel Escoffier, (and with an uncredited Pierre Cardin as costume-maker); with production-design by Lucien Carre, Antonio Castilo, and Berard, compliment the (uncredited) brilliant prosthetic make-up of the Beast. The fabulous black and white cinematography is by Henri Alekan (who shot the GregoryPeck/Audrey Hepburn modern day fairy-tale Roman Holiday in 1953)

Cocteau’s poetic approach to film-making is summed-up in his collection of writings on Film, published as The Art of Cinema posthumously in 1994.

“A cinema studio is a factory for making ghosts. The cinema is a ghost language that has to be learned. It is incredible for a poet to know this. The day when a director understands that the author’s role is not limited to the script (to writing it) – the day when the author reveals himself – then the dead language of cinema will become a living language.”

Cocteau: Album de Cinema, 1943 from Cocteau: The Art of Cinema 1992

“The film unfolds to a perfectly poised slow tempo in surreal settings that gain intensity from the fabulous decor and costumes, the glittering lighting and the many moments of magic effects. The candle-lit shadow-play deepens the gothic atmosphere of the beast’s castle, harking back to early expressionist classics of the genre.”
— Marina Warner

“When Jean Cocteau made his film of La Belle et la Bête in l946, he imagined a beast who has no rival for hideous fascination among fairytale beasts before or since: Jean Marais’s growling, slowed, incantatory delivery, his sweeping, elaborately princely magnificence of apparel, his thick pelt curling out exuberantly from his lace collar and fine linen as he springs and lopes, and, above all, his staring pale eyes in the great leonine and brindled mask of his face with the two sharp incisors defining his mouth, has never been matched for erotic power. He captures a perfect and irresistible synthesis of repulsiveness and attractiveness, which evokes a genuine frisson of desire in me every time I see it; Cocteau’s realization of a dream about the power of love, as personified by Belle, exercises its seduction again and again over me, even while my common sense, my reason, and a long habit of skepticism about romance tell me I must resist.  “

(Marina Warner from the DVD Notes for the BFI release of La Belle et la Bete)


Jean Cocteau: La Belle et la Bete 1946. The Prince aka the aspirant lover Avenant aka the beast, played by Cocteau’s lover Jean Marais with Josette Day as Belle.

Cocteau’s mythic films are his poetic response to the surge of interest in mythology, mythography and the psychology of myth that pervades this period. (A remarkable period for English writing too – in these years we have J.R.R. Tolkein writing his Lord of the Rings, Mervyn Peake creating Gormenghast, C.S. Lewis and his Narnia chronicles, J.R. Eddison and his Worm Ouroborus, as well as the mythographic analyses of Joseph Campbell (The Masks of God), Robert Graves (The White Goddess), etc), the components of Carl Jung’s writings (Psychology and Alchemy, Flying Saucers – the Myth of Things Seen in the Sky,), and of course Jackson Pollock’s paintings of the early-1940s, exploring Jungian archetypes (eg Stenographic Figure, 1942). Of course, with Cocteau, his primary mythopoeic drive is to interpret the mid-20th century zeitgeist in the forms and with a poetic awareness of the archetypal forms to be discovered in fairy stories, in mythologies, in dreams, in archetypes.


In Christian Berard and Lucien Carre’s gothic sets with the real arms holding the flickering and guttering candelabra, Belle (Josette Day) is lost in a dreamlike corridor in the Beast’s castle.



Interestingly in one of his last publications, the mythographer Joseph Campbell (famous by then not just for his vast body of mythographical work, but also because of his role in inspiring the mythology of Lucas’ Star Wars), describes the role that mythography played in his own quest for self-realisation (Pathways to Bliss – Mythology and Personal Transformation, 2004)

“Myth is not the same as history: myths are not inspiring stories of people who lived notable lives. No, myth is the transcendent in relationship to the present. Now, a folk hero is different from the subject of a biography, even when the hero may have been a real person once upon a time – John Henry or George Washington. The folk hero represents a transforming feature in the myth. When you have an oral mythic tradition, it’s right up to date. In the folktales of the American Indians, you have bicycles, you have the form of the Capitol dome in Washington. Everything gets incorporated into the mythology immediately. In our society of fixed texts and printed words, it is the function of the poet to see the life-value of the facts round about, and to deify them, as it were, to provide images that relate the everyday to the eternal.”  (my italics)

(Joseph Campbell: Pathways to Bliss pps XVI 2004)

Cocteau is well aware of this poetical driver:

“A film is not the telling of a dream, but a dream in which we all participate together through a kind of hypnosis, and the slightest breakdown in the mechanics of the dream wakens the dreamer, who loses interest in a sleep that is no longer his own”

Jean Cocteau: The Art of Cinema pps 40)

Cocteau describes the experience of film, in a similar way to how William Gibson describes the experience of cyberspace: “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”

(from William Gibson: Neuromancer, 1983)


Jean Cocteau: Mythopoetic Movies – Orphee (1949)

Jean Cocteau, following the surrealists, really epitomised the magical realism or cine-poetic approach to film-making. Not many poets had tried their hand at movie-making before Cocteau, especially not poets particularly fascinated by the mytho-poetic dimensions of fable, fairy story and myth. Cocteau’s two signature post-WW2 movies – La Belle at La Bete (1946), and Orphee (1949) are absolutely must-see films in this refined genre – pioneer films that still stand pretty much on their own, despite the spate of fantasy and magic-realism films that have emerged coevally with modern CGI and digital sfx.

As a reminder of Cocteau’s ingenuity during this post-war period, when film stock was hard to come by, finance was difficult, Cocteau was 57 years old in 1946 when he made La Belle et la Bete, had recently recovered from an opium addiction. Cocteau could not afford the kind of expensive optical and special effects that Hollywood took for granted. He had to invent his own ‘effects’ to bring his re-telling of the story of Orpheus and the Underworld to the screen. In-camera effects and simple special effects were his narrative tools.


Jean Cocteau: Orphee, 1949. Cocteau, strapped for finance, had to use his ingenuity in making the special effects necessary to illustrate Orphee’s transition from the real to the mythopoetic world of the underground. Cocteau chooses the device of the mirror, clever cutting, and a highly reflective basin of mercury. In this sequence we see Orphee approaching the mirror (or is it a pair of hands approaching Jean Marais, wearing the same rubber gloves? Also in this part of Orphee, we see Cocteau reversing the film so that Orphee’s rubber gloves seem to snap on instantly. These simple tricks are very impressive and disbelief-suspending.

Cocteau was making these movies in the context of a surge of interest in poetry and myth signalled by James Joyce: Finnegan’s Wake (1939), Erwin Panofsky: Studies in Iconology (1939), Joseph Campbell: A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944), Robert Graves: The White Goddess (1948), Joseph Campbell:The  Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949). In the wake of the mythic horrors and devastation of the Nazis and World War 2, and the dawn of the Atomic age with its apocalyptic threat, these timeless subjects came to the fore as mankind searched for new meaning as first peace, then a new ‘cold war’ era, dawned.

Although not a member of the ‘official’ Surrealists, Cocteau’s trilogy of films related to the legend of Orpheus:  Blood of a Poet ((1931); Orphee (1949), and Testament d’Orphee (1960) fit well within the surrealist’s spectrum of interests (the subconscious, dreams, myths, universal archetypes, magic, chance, automatic writing, etc). Perhaps, like Appollinaire, Cocteau, in his twenties,  had been influenced by the fantastic film series of Louis Feuillade (Fantomas (1913), Les Vampires (1915), Judex (1916). None of these films relied on much more special effects than George Melies had at his disposal, it was their dark mystery and hints of the supernatural that the Surrealists admired. Interestingly Georges Franju made a brilliant re-make of Judex in 1963.


Other significant surrealistic films that Cocteau almost certainly would have seen include:

Rene Clair: Entr-Acte 1924

Lotte Reiniger: Die Abenteur des Prinzen Achmed 1926

James Sibley Watson/Melville Webber: The Fall of the House of Usher 1928

Germain Dulac and Antonin Artaud: The Seashell and the Clergyman 1928,

Man Ray: L’Etoile de Mer (1928)

Jean Epstein: The Fall of the House of Usher 1928

Luiz Bunuel/Salvador Dali Un Chien Andalou 1929

Marx Brothers: Animal Crackers 1930

Carl Dreyer: Vampyr 1932

Marx Brothers: Duck Soup 1933

Dave Fleischer: Betty Boop as Snow White 1933

Marx Brothers: A Night at the Opera 1935

Charlie Chaplin: Modern Times 1936

Curtis Harrington: Fall of the House of Usher 1942

Maya Deren/Alexander Hammid: Meshes of the Afternoon 1943

Walt Disney/Salvador Dali: Destino 1945

While this is speculation (on what Cocteau saw), I wanted you to see that Cocteau’s work, though unique, fits within a broader tradition of artists exploring the unconscious, magic, myth and fable, and the absurdity of modern life.

Of course, making serious films in post war France, even with financing from the generous Duc de Noaille was difficult and to optimise his visualisation of the Underworld, Cocteau was forced by circumstance to be inventive with his special effects, resorting to the simplicity of the smoke and mirror ideas of Melies, and using in-camera effects.

Special effects can often be as simple as ‘in-camera’ effects – you know: the iris fade to black/or white, double exposure, running film in reverse, stop-motion, elapsed time, slow motion, rotating camera, inverting camera, using negative as positive,  (etc).


Jean Cocteau: Orphee (1949). Heurtebise, Death’s chauffeur, follows Orpheus through the mirror into the Underworld, distance-fogging (under exposure) underlines the illusion.


Jean Cocteau: Orphee (1949) Heurtibise in the ‘reel’ world sees Orpheus in the Underworld.