What’s immediately striking about 1946’s Beauty and the Beast, the French film that preceded and profoundly influenced the famous animated Disney version of the 1990s, is that it doesn’t begin as we would expect a fairy tale movie to begin, with a storybook opening up or pixie dust being sprinkled. Instead we have director Jean Cocteau writing the title of the film and the names of the principal members of the cast and crew on a chalkboard. It’s an odd beginning, an ordinary but jarring sight, as if the magician has let you backstage before performing a single trick. And there is a reason why Cocteau chooses it. He is highly aware of the adults in his audience, knows how reluctant they may be to believe in magic, so he knows he can’t begin with magic right away. Instead, as foreshadowed by the appearance of the chalkboard, we get a lesson. There is a quick glimpse of a slapping production slate, and then Cocteau himself requests un minute to set these adults straight. The director’s handwritten text scrolls by to sound of an expectant drum roll: a lesson on how to watch the film. “Children believe what we tell them,” the text reads. “They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause the beast shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things. I ask of you a little of this childlike simplicity and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s ‘Open Sesame’: Once upon a time…”

But still the audience isn’t asked to plunge headfirst into fantasy. Cocteau lets the enchanted world of his film take hold gradually; grounding the audience in the day-to-day before letting the fantastic elements make their way in. Then Beauty’s father gets lost in the woods and finds that the trees part in front of him to reveal his path – then they close in again. A gate opens itself. Inside the Beast’s strange palace, Beauty’s father finds living human arms clutching the candelabras on the walls and living human heads watching him from the stone that surrounds the fireplace. By the time Beauty reaches the castle and seems to float down a long corridor while white curtains billow dreamily around her, we are spellbound by the film’s eldritch gorgeousness, and we don’t need to question why any longer. Like children, we know the answer already: it’s magic.

With the indispensable aid of cinematographer by Henri Alekan (who would sometimes continue work on the film without Cocteau due to the director’s troubled health during the shoot) Cocteau got just the look he wanted for the film. Eschewing the gauzy soft focus that had become conventional for fantastic films, Cocteau was insistent upon shooting his chimerical story with realistic clarity. It was a look of unreal realism that Cocteau describes thusly in his painstaking account of the production, Beauty and the Beast: Diary of a Film: “Alekan has achieved a supernatural quality within the limits of realism. It is the reality of childhood. Fairyland without fairies. Fairyland in the kitchen.”

It’s a testament to Cocteau and Alekan’s vision that their domesticated twist on the otherworldly still works like a charm today – where the fuzzy glow that many directors would have resorted to in order to achieve a fairy tale quality might have given the film a dated, kitschy tinge, Beauty and the Beast still conjures up fairyland with grace. (I don’t mean to discount the performances either. Jean Marais conveys his Beast’s humanity even under all those layers of convincing but uncomfortable makeup, and as worrying as this oft-told tale of a girl in love with her captor might be in other hands, Josette Day is a Beauty both radiant and fairly self-possessed. To wit: compared with her spoiled sisters, lay-about brother and suitor, hapless father, and even the deeply troubled Beast, Beauty seems like the only character in the film really capable of taking care of herself.)

An even fuller understanding of Cocteau’s achievement is gained by placing his film in historical context. Making adults believe in magic would have presented a difficult task on its own. Making adults in postwar France believe in magic was nearly impossible. The nation was striving to recover from years of Nazi occupation, a brutal reality that created both artistic and practical concerns. Cocteau was not conducting his operations at an abundant dream factory with the considerable means to bring his dreams to life, as artists like Vincente Minnelli were at studios like MGM in the United States during this same time, but rather struggling with the postwar shortage of necessary materials like film stock and adequate filmmaking equipment. Filming in color was far from being an option. It even proved difficult to find enough sheets for a scene in which human silhouettes again white linen on a clothesline are used to striking effect. “I have done my best to show that France can still fight against immense odds – no – that France can no longer fighter except against immense odds,” Cocteau writes stirringly in his production diary as the film is nearing completion. In this way, Beauty and the Beast represents a triumph of artists over dire circumstances, and of the imagination to transform a demoralized and demoralizing world into a splendid one.

“My parents didn’t believe in magic spirits,” the newly-transformed prince tells Beauty at the end of the film, “so the spirits took their revenge through me.” It’s a brief explanation that is never expanded upon, but a very telling explanation indeed. There could no better argument for belief. The cold skepticism of adults causes the suffering of the innocent, but wonderful things can happen for those who believe. Tears become diamonds. A beast becomes a prince. And at last having overcome their obstacles, a pair of lovers can fly away together, to a castle in the clouds.

France, 1946. 96 min. DisCina

Victoria Large Written by: