Reimagining La Belle et la Bête

ARTS, FILM, Theatre & Performing Arts
At the Edinburgh International Festival, Philip Glass transforms of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 classic into a synthesis of opera and film.

Philip Glass opens Jean Cocteau’s restored, re-scored La Belle et la Bête with an ominous moan of woodwind and the frenzied choir of keyboard synthesizers. We’re assured by uplifting motifs interspersed in the overture, but the tone and tempo establish at the very outset that this version of the film is more terrifying than terrific, more frantic than romantic, more horror story than fairy tale. The music is haunting, but it tingles and lingers in equal measure.

This stage reinterpretation of La Belle et la Bête sees the original dialogue and sweeping score of Cocteau’s masterpiece replaced with Glass’s own operatic composition. Performed by a live ensemble underneath the projected film, the combination is initially (and perhaps unavoidably) distracting: the degree of synchronisation of the operatic singers with the silent speech of their on-screen counterparts is impressive, but precision is not minute. The result is a slightly disorientating opening scene, which unhelpfully introduces five characters all at once in a chaos of big dresses, poufy costumes, arrows, windows, and disembodied voices. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long for the audience to keep up and decide where to fix their eyes; the cinematic experience of the film, from start to finish, is as engrossing as it ever was.

Glass’s score is a significant departure from the lavish, theatrical original by Georges Auric in 1946: woodwinds and synthetic sounds predominate in extended sections of the same motif played in variation, frequently oscillating in intensity, and allowing for few moments of silence. The overall impression: stoicism, frenzy, presentness, nowness. La Belle et la Bête is a love story, but Glass interprets it more strongly as an allegory of the artist’s creative pursuit, lost in herself in the search for the mot juste of art, a favourite theme of Cocteau’s. Reflecting this, the music is claustrophobic, an anxious meditation on the rush and urgency of the chase, simultaneously warning us that the pursuit could never end, and appealing that it never does. We are constantly being pulled forwards by the hand: as Belle and the Beast, in each other’s embrace, rise into the heavens in a maelstrom of clouds at the end of the film, the music likewise climbs in a sudden frenzy, tumbling towards creative nirvana.

What makes Cocteau’s film enduring is more than just pop culture interest: the celluloid-cut-and-paste special effects enchant and astonish even now, and the old-fashioned minimalism evokes a cold and intimidating world for the good. The story also attracts with its layered allegory, and Cocteau weaves a dark tale: his Beast is not Disney’s cuddly anthropomorphic wildebeest, but an enigma, an in-between creature, whose struggle with savage animalistic instincts despite more civilised, humane aspirations takes us a little too close down the slope of the uncanny valley, drawing us with a melange of revulsion, curiosity and sympathy. And the palace itself: a misty mansion whose long corridors disappear into deep shadow, and where ghostly arms and hands hold candles, pour wine, and pull curtains. In a somewhat disturbing final scene, the dying Beast is given a second chance at life by swapping corporeal form—face, fur, falchion—with Avenant, the archetypical arrogant anti-hero who unwittingly offends the ancient magic that kept the Beast in animal form and dies at its hands.

Though Glass’s revamped La Belle et la Bête was first released in 1994, the film/opera formula remains unconventional, and whilst his effort succeeds on so many levels, the end product is neither more Cocteau nor more Glass. In fact, it was easy to appreciate early on how the stage re-interpretation not only complements but enhances the experience of both source and new material. Cocteau’s film, severed of its original sound, is a muted testament to his cinematographic brilliance, and the occasionally imperfect lip synching of the opera draws the audience further to the careful visual composition of each scene. And even though the audience’s eyes are inevitably drawn more to the screen than the ensemble below it, that Glass’s score not only segues seamlessly with every twist and turn in the film, but first reconstructs then amplifies the base elements of mystery and terror and magic of Cocteau’s vision, is remarkable. In the scene in which Belle, after discovering the Beast’s palace, glides (not figuratively) down a long corridor, broken at intervals by pale curtains billowing in through large open windows like ghosts, she is serenaded by a soothing chorus in Georges Auric’s original score, as though welcomed by a host of the palace’s phantoms; Glass instead chooses to accompany Belle’s entrance with a sense of eerie discovery and foreboding that had been building from the beginning, feeding into the audience’s intuition of all things sinister to come. The magical is traded for the dark and mysterious.

Glass’s theatrical reimagining of La Belle et la Bête initially feels avant-garde and experimental, but quickly becomes safe and familiar. He re-introduces Cocteau’s brilliance to a discerning contemporary audience by amalgamating two different genres and focusing on essence of the original. There’s no raspy, crackly audio track to remind us that we are watching a film almost seven decades old; instead, crooned and bellowed etherealness in soprano and baritone plies us closer into an intoxicating, fantastical dream-world of mists, monsters, and magic in black and white.

The Philip Glass Ensemble’s ‘La Belle et la Bête’ was one of the opening shows at the 2013 Edinburgh International Festival, in conjunction with the British Film Institute’s ‘Gothic’ season.