The recent live action Disney remake of their own animated film has reawakened interest in the old Beauty and the Beast scenario - but as that cartoon was inspired in large part by the French original, it's worth referring back to that, for it has few peers.
Certainly it is true that La Belle et la Bete reaches across to both sides of the age spectrum, as it is that rare animal, an adult fairy tale, magically directed by Jean Cocteau without sinking into heavy adult grimness, and retaining the innate beauty of the story and the setting itself
I was first introduced to Cocteau with a certain amount of caution. In the process of an experimental film we were making at Signals Media Centre Colchester with some technicians, local artists and actors, we touched on ideas of how to tell a film version of some of the classic Greek legends, such as Echo and Narcissus, as well as Orpheus in the Underworld. Such a film we watched as research: Cocteau's Orphee (above). Its quirky use of rustic and (then) modern French locations with black bikers for demonic servants and rippling water effects for mirrors was debatably entertaining, and Cocteau was feeling his way round a medium that he was only accustomed to from a distance, but was also finding new and interesting ways to express his poetry on film.
With La Belle et la Bete, made 4 years before however, he was able to find a perfect blend of mainstream story telling combined with his own poetic emotional and visual sense.
Still recognisable under an arduous make-up, is Cocteau's favourite leading man Jean Marais (who also played the title character in Orphee), who brings a classic French Gallic quality of tragic charm to the Beast. Interestingly, Marais also plays one of Belle's village admirers, which perhaps suggests (with its finale too), that a lot of what has transpired in the story may be in Belle's mind.
What's so effective about the film is that its setting outside the castle remains down-to-earth, whilst the castle remains magical and otherworldly, but the two still blend together perfectly. This is not only down to Cocteau's skill, but also I feel, the accessibility of Josette Day to play in both of these worlds so easily.
A weakness of the Disney version(s) was the need to have a villain, whereas in this traditional and largely faithful telling of the tale, there is a greater villain (and hero, in its way): that of Nature itself. The harshness of winter (metaphorically as well as physically) within the cold prison of the Beast's palace - it is also because of his daughter's wish for a rose that Belle's father is ensnared by the Beast in the first place, and it is also that rarely used power in blockbusters today, Love, that is the ultimate cure for both Belle and the Beast's enslavement.
But then, the French were always better expressing Love than anyone else.