I finally got to see Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece this summer and I fell head over heels in love with the production. Long before Disney’s Beauty and the Beast took the world by storm, Cocteau created a film based very closely on the original fairy tale, using ingenious practical effects to bring the story to life. Jean Marais starred as the Beast who eventually wins Belle’s heart, but that’s not all. He also portrays the human Prince….AND Avenant, the villain who also loves Belle and wants her for himself!
If you watch this film without seeing the credits, it would be easy to miss that Marais plays a TRIPLE role in the film. As the Beast, he is hidden under a gorgeously complex makeup that completely transforms him from head to toe. The human Prince doesn’t appear until the last ten minutes of the film, and Avenant is just so…different from the other characters he plays.
Let’s start with the Beast: It is revealed by the end that the Beast was a prince whose parents did not believe in spirits. As punishment, the spirits transformed their son into a Beast, and the castle was laid under a heavy enchantment. The Beast was then given several magical items (a magic mirror that could show you what you wished, a glove that could take you where you wished to go) and the ability to create precious gifts at will. The only way for the curse to be lifted is for the Beast to earn the willing love from a woman. But all the time the Beast is fighting the instinct to turn into a wild animal, and this is impeding his ability to fall in love with Belle (and also receive her love). Marais’ performance as the tormented beast is a sight to behold: he (as the Beast) truly wants to love Belle, but at the same time he doesn’t believe he deserves that love (because of his beastly nature).
As I said before, the makeup for the Beast is simply amazing! (It puts all CGI motion capture to shame). He is covered in fur so well that it looks completely natural!
Eat your heart out Gaston, Avenant did it all long before you came around!
In his role as Avenant, Marais transforms into something else entirely (and not in a good way). He starts off innocently enough as a childhood friend of Belle’s who only wants to help since the family has fallen on hard times. He offers at the beginning to marry Belle, knowing this would help the family’s position (and it’s implied he’s offered before) but Belle politely refuses, as she wants to help her father. Avenant is angry about this gentle rejection (for the moment), and contents himself with helping the family however he can. Things become complicated after Belle disappears to be with the Beast and Avenant “helps” Belle’s brother Ludovic with his debts by introducing him to a moneylender, a deal that eventually leaves the family in near total poverty. Avenant feels no blame for the role he played in putting the family in this situation, showing a hint that he is not as good-natured as he appears to be.
Things get much worse when Belle returns for a visit, richly appareled in robes fit for a princess (complete with a crown!). Though Belle denies it (and simply isn’t aware of it yet), everyone else can see that the young woman is head over heels in love with the Beast, and Avenant becomes overwhelmingly jealous, to the point that he is nearly seething with rage. When Belle’s jealous sisters plot to keep Belle at home longer than her promise so the Beast will become angry and kill her, Avenant willingly goes along with the plan, initially hiding Beast’s horse Magnifique and then stealing the horse (along with Ludovic) so that they can ride back to Beast’s castle to steal the Beast’s treasure (and kill the Beast as well).
Avenant’s plan MIGHT have succeeded (the Beast is already half-dead of grief at this point) except he and Ludovic are unaware of the Beast’s warning to Belle that the treasury (dubbed Diana’s Pavilion) must ONLY be entered by the front door using the key, going in any other way has deadly consequences. This is because the treasure room is guarded by a living statue of Diana that fires a magic arrow on any intruder. In this case, the target is Avenant who, before the horrified eyes of Ludovic, turns into an exact duplicate of the Beast before toppling to the floor of the treasure chamber, presumably to his death, since he is not seen again.
And then there is the brief appearance of the Prince. So different is this character that it wasn’t until I went back and checked the credits that I realized Marais was playing three roles! In fact, the dialogue teases the fact that the two roles are played by the same person when Belle admits that the Prince resembles someone from the village she might have loved once. But where Avenant was full of jealous rage, the Prince is gentle and patient, the perfect match for Belle.
Jean Marais is such a versatile actor in this classic film, it takes great talent to be able to play two roles in a film, let alone three! If you haven’t seen Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, I highly recommend it 🙂 Thanks to Christine Wehner and Silver Screenings for hosting this great blogathon!!