The film had killed me

La Belle et la Bête (‘Beauty and the Beast’)
Jean Cocteau, 1946

On the morning of 27th August 1945, shooting commenced on La Belle et la Bête, a French-language adaptation of the 1757 fairy tale Beauty and the Beast. Directing this grand endeavour in his 57th year was poet and artist Jean Cocteau, a multi-talented creative force known for his distinctive surrealist style. Upon its debut in October 1946, Cocteau’s masterpiece was met with wide acclaim, celebrated as a triumph of cinematic fantasy, but the journey to its creation was laden with challenges and strife, all of which was compounded by the filmmaker’s ill-health. Throughout the gruelling production process, Cocteau kept a meticulous diary in which he recorded the problems he faced whilst bringing this ambitious project to life, and at the very end, the day after his vision had been screened for the first time at the studio, he wrote the following entry.

The Diary Entry

Saturday, June 1, 1946.

I am writing these last lines of this diary in the country house where I have just taken refuge from bells of all kinds: doorbells, phone bells and the Rouge est mis.

I had decided to escape as soon as the film received its finishing touches. Now yesterday, Friday, I showed it to the studio technicians in the Joinville projection room.

The announcement, written on the blackboard by the projectionists, caused a stir at Saint-Maurice. Benches and chairs had been brought in. Lacombe had changed his shooting schedule so that his unit and artists could attend.

At 6:30 Marlene Dietrich was seated beside me and I tried to get up to say a few words. But the accumulation of all those minutes which had led up to that one paralyzed me and I was almost incapable of speech. I sat watching the film, holding Marlene’s hand, crushing it without noticing what I was doing. The film unwound, revolved, sparkled, outside of me, solitary, unfeeling, far-off as a heavenly body. It had killed me. It now rejected me and lived its own life. The only thing I could see in it were the memories attached to every foot of it and the suffering it had caused me. I couldn’t believe that others would be able to find a story line in it. I thought they were all immersed in my imaginings.

The reception of this audience of technicians was unforgettable. That was my reward. Whatever happens, I shall never experience again the graciousness of this ceremony organized very simply by this little village whose arts and crafts are the canning of dreams.

Afterward, at ten, I dined at the Palais-Royal with Bérard, Boris, Auric, Jean Marais and Claude Ibéria, and we promised always to work together. May fate not separate us.

Further Reading

Cocteau’s diary was first published in French in 1947, titled La Belle et la Bête: Journal d’un film. In 1950 it was translated into English by Ronald Duncan and published by Dennis Dobson Ltd. A new edition came in 1972 courtesy of Dover Publications, bearing the title Beauty and the Beast: Diary of a Film. I love this book. It’s a detailed peek behind the curtain on what sounds like an unbearably stressful shoot. The fact that Cocteau managed to complete the film is a surprise.

The whole film can be found on YouTube. But here’s the trailer:

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