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La Belle et la Bete
SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.85:1 Widescreen
  • French PCM Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 1 Disc
FEATURES
  • Audio commentary with cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling
  • Dreams of Cocteau: The adventure of Beauty and the Beast (2013, 49 mins): documentary featuring interviews with author Dominique Marny, Prof. David Gullentops, Serge Toubiana, and Ellen Schafer
  • Deleted scene and alternate audio clips (7 mins)
  • Christian Bérard's and Jean Cocteau, two magicians (2013, 27 mins): documentary film focusing on the production history of La Belle et la Bête
  • Fully illustrated booklet with new writing on the film, and full film credits
  • Region B

La Belle et la Bete

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Jean Cocteau
1946 | 94 Minutes

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: £19.99 | Series: BFI
BFI Video

Release Date: August 6, 2018
Review Date: August 2, 2018

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SYNOPSIS

La Belle et la bête is a landmark feat of cinematic fantasy in which master filmmaker Jean Cocteau conjures spectacular visions of enchantment, desire and death that have never been equalled.

 Josette Day is luminous yet feisty as Beauty, and Jean Marais gives one of his best performances as the Beast, at once brutal and gentle, rapacious and vulnerable, shamed and repelled by his own bloodlust. Henri Alekan’s subtle black and white cinematography combine with Christian Bérard’s masterly costumes and set designs to create a magical piece of cinema, a children’s fairy tale refashioned into a stylised and highly sophisticated dream.

 The BFI is proud to present this world cinema classic in High Definition for the first time in the UK. This new 4K restoration is sourced from the SNC/Groupe M6 and the Cinémathèque Français.


PICTURE

BFI presents Jean Cocteau’s La Belle and la Bête on Blu-ray, presenting the film in the aspect ratio of around 1.37:1 on a dual-layer disc. Unlike Criterion’s own North American Blu-ray edition, BFI is making use of a new 4K restoration scanned from the 35mm original camera negative and a 35mm fine-grain interpositive. The disc is region locked to region B and North American viewers will require a Blu-ray player that can play back region B content.

I was anticipating what we would get here, having heard good things about this new restoration. Previous home video versions I have seen varied from awful to pretty good but open to improvement. Criterion’s own Blu-ray made use of an older restoration, created in 1995, which amazingly enough actually looked pretty good when delivered in high-definition (it was the same master they used for their DVD re-issue, which looked good as well) but there were still source issues present: a pulse, obvious tram lines, shifting in the frame, and a decent amount of dirt and debris. Despite all of this what was offered in the end was still a large improvement over Criterion’s original DVD (which was a port of their LaserDisc) and, damage and all, it did look like a film. So, even if Criterion’s still looked okay there was room for improvement, and it seems obvious that things could only get better. Or so I thought at least.

I’m not sure what my feelings for this disc are, exactly. Disappointment? Frustration? I’m not going to say anger because in the grand scheme of things there are worse things in this world. But there is, at least, a level of frustration here because all of the strong aspects this new restoration has to offer has been just wiped out by a lousy encode, or some digital tinkering that occurred during the restoration process. Whatever the case, this is a mess.

I’m not sure what has happened, but the image has severe issues with macroblocking and banding, which manages to destroy all of the good to be found elsewhere. When the film opens there was an odd effect in the darker areas of the screen, almost like dark blobs moving around as the light shifted, and at first I wasn’t sure what it was exactly. A stain? Mold? Some other form of deterioration that couldn’t be fixed? It looked odd, but fair enough; previous restorations still had their problems because of the source so it’s not a big deal. But as the film progressed and the lighting became more intricate, creating intense shadows (specifically in the Beast’s castle) it became very obvious what the problem was.

It appears that the darker grays and the blacks have been just flattened out, removing the subtler gradient shifts on the darker end of the spectrum to create flat single tones. So while brighter scenes, and brighter areas have a cleaner blending of the gray levels, looking photographic and even rendering textures and depth superbly, once an area reaches a certain level of darkness we are then treated with one flat darker gray tone, that transitions to a flat darker gray tone, and keeps transitioning until it gets to a flat black (or what would qualify as the film’s absolute black). Since there are no subtle shifts between these darker tones this creates severe banding effects, usually on the edges of the screen (though we still get this in the middle of a scene as well), and then bad macroblocking effects because light source moves around and shifts these dark gray and black blobs. I would say it has the effect of an early, heavily compressed video, but that’s not even right since the brighter areas of the screen don’t show this issue, looking far more natural, lacking those blocky effects.

It’s a mess, and it’s not subtle. It was pointed out online that Criterion’s own edition for Pan’s Labyrinth had issues with macroblocking. When I initially viewed the disc I looked but could not detect it. I even paused it a few times but didn’t see it. A recent viewing, though, exposed the problem after I ended up pausing on a certain scene. When paused at certain moments, yes, it was noticeable, but in motion it was less so. That’s not to excuse the problem, but more to point out that when it’s subtle enough you can overlook issues like this and even miss them. Would I want that problem fixed? Sure, but since I’m not watching the disc frame by frame I’m less concerned by it because in motion I don’t see it. But that’s not the case here. It’s very noticeable and very distracting. In motion it looks far worse because you have those digital blobs moving around in areas of the screen. You can’t not notice it.

And this is all a real shame because everything else looks so good, and this had the promise of being a knock-out presentation. In the areas of the screen not taken over by banding or macroblocking, the level of detail is astounding. The improvements over Criterion’s Blu-ray are significant, and not just in the detail department, but in the clean-up job as well. Scratches, blotches, bits of dirt, they’re mostly gone, only a few stragglers remain. Even the pulsing and tram lines are mostly gone now, too. The corners of the frame are rounded, suggesting the full frame is being exposed, but this isn’t an issue at all. Everything else about the image is great, just really solid, but all of that good gets mangled when darker areas of the screen look like they’re being streamed through a 14.4 dial-up modem.

I think ultimately I’m just disappointed. There is so much promise here but somewhere someone turned a knob to the wrong level and it just messed up the blacks. Despite its own problems, including a dated master, Criterion’s presentation ultimately comes off looking better.

5/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

Delivered in lossless PCM stereo, the film’s monaural track shows its age but doesn’t feature any severe damage that takes away from the experience. Still, the audio is generally flat and there can be a bit of a crackle, but the music sounds fine and dialogue sounds clear. The notes indicate the audio comes from the 1995 restoration.

6/10

SUPPLEMENTS

While this edition proves to be a big disappointment so far BFI at least stacks on several good features, though ultimately this provides little comfort. At any rate, the audio commentary recorded by Christopher Frayling and recorded for the BFI in 2001 for their previous DVD edition (Criterion also ported it over to their own edition) yet again shows up. It’s still a perfectly solid scholarly track, Frayling looking at Cocteau’s techniques, the film’s magical visuals, the effects, and how it works as an adaptation. He also touches on the production and its impact. Ultimately its serviceable and Frayling does keep the pace going nicely. I’m obviously not sounding overly enthused by it but that’s because it just comes down to it being a perfectly fine commentary, nothing extraordinary but still worth listening to.

BFI next includes two documentaries, one on the making of the film, Des Réves de Cocteau en numerérique, l’aventure de la Belle et la bête (51 minutes), and another on Cocteau’s work with designer Christian Bérard, Christian Bérard ey Jean Cocteau, deux magiciens de spectacle (24-minutes), both of which were made in 2013 for what the French edition. In any case both are essentially just talking-head documentaries with some narrated excerpts from Cocteau’s own journals at times. The making-of (which features writers David Gullentops, Dominique Marny and Serge Toubiana, and then Jean-Jacques Paulvé , son of producer André Paulvé) can feel a bit long but it gets into far more detail about the film’s production and the various troubles it ran into along the way, which ranged from general effects or make-up problems to a production company just dropping out all willy-nilly. The participants also talk about the film’s reception at the time, which sounds to have been (rather surprisingly for me) “meh.” Though it ends up being fairly standard as a making-of the last portion does get into detail about the new restoration and the research that went into it, which all proves fascinating.

The shorter documentary on Cocteau and Bérard was a bit more interesting. Featuring Pierre Bergé (who passed away in 2017) and film historian Jean Ollé-Laprune, the two talk about how Cocteau and Bérard met, their stage work together, and then their film work, up to Bérard’s death while he was working on Cocteau’s Orpheus. Aided by photos and designs the two talk about his work and what he brought to Cocteau’s films. It’s also comical when Bergé—talking about Bérard’s substance abuse and how that probably aided in his design work—catches himself when it sounds like he’s promoting drug use. It’s a talking-heads piece as well but it has a bit more energy to it.

Three deleted scenes running about 6-minutes are also here. The first appears to be a complete scene, with finished music and audio, and is actually decent condition. The other two scenes are audio-only, the footage having been lost.

BFI then includes Barbe bleue, a stop motion clay-animation from René Bertrand and Jean Painlevé, based on Perrault’s tale of Blue Beard. It’s a charming if surreal animated musical, the characters modeled by Bertrand and his children. This short of course also appears on Criterion’s Jean Painlevé DVD release and even if it looks like this is the same 1995 restoration used for that edition it is presented in full 1080p/24hz high-definition here and, source issues aside, I thought it looked quite good.

The disc then closes with two theatrical trailers (the original and then one for the BFI re-release) and then a minute-and-a-half animated photo gallery showing poster art and production photos. BFI also includes one of their excellent booklets with a collection of essays. Dr. Deborah Allison first offers up an essay on Cocteau bringing his poetic sensibilities to the adaptation while Marina Warner goes back to Mme Leprince de Beaumont’s tale, how Cocteau has translated it, and the influences it has left behind, particularly on fairy tales (it even was a clear influence on Disney’s own adaptation). George E. Turner then provides a lengthy account on the film’s production (if you don’t feel like watching the talking-heads documentary this is a solid alternative) and then we get a small excerpts from Cocteau’s journal covering the making of the film. The booklet then closes with short bios on Cocteau, and stars Jean Marais and Josette Day, and then information about the special features and the restoration. BFI’s books are always exceptional and this is no different.

A decent collection on the film and its making, though Criterion’s edition feels a bit more satisfying.

7/10

CLOSING

Supplements aside—which I can’t complain all that much about—this is a seriously disappointing release. The restoration does look good but however this was encoded it is leading to severe macroblocking and awful banding effects, with all that is good about the restoration falls to the wayside. What could have been…




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