La Belle et a la Bette is one of the various incarnations of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, sharing similar elements with other versions but standing alone in its interpretation and presentation. However, it stays true to classic fairy tales in that each character is hyperbolic in their personalities and actions, there is an overarching lesson that is achieved by the end, and there is a fairly happy (and a little weird) ending.
The director, Cocteau, was practically obsessed with fairy tales and the way they were told by different people and in different periods. This is evidenced in his surrealist take on the beast’s castle, which is really the main setting where it is most utilized. He also tried to convey the circular aspect of fairy tales, of the way cause and effect play out to create a story that could be considered timeless. Much of the film’s conflict sprung up from either greed or the pursuit of material security. The causes were not so much events in the story, but personal attributes of the characters that really drove the plot. Because of selfishness, the sister’s were nasty and prideful, treating Belle like a servant probably throughout her entire life. Minor greed was the cause of the son’s debt, which came back to financially devastate the family later on. And finally, the father’s ambition for money and status led him to being lost in the woods and getting himself indebted to the Beast, which set the stage for the true plot of the movie.
On the opposite spectrum, Belle’s selfless and humble nature led her to ask for merely a rose. This was the real reason she felt compelled to take her father’s place. The characters in the movie acted as if it was her fault and she deserved whatever punishment she recieved, but by the end you realize that her selfless request still had far greater success than any of the other character’s endeavors. The sisters remained poor, and the other love interest was transformed into another beast.
Another aspect of the narrative of this movie is its circular nature in dealing with the central lesson: It’s what’s on the inside that counts, and the pursuit of superficial happiness will leave you with nothing. We were never told how the beast came to be, and throughout the movie I wondered when that would be brought up and what role that information would play in the movie. But the director only hinted to it throughout the movie, giving us snippets of the truth that came to completion at the end. It was shown that the beast had countless riches and magic powers at his disposal, but as the theme suggests, he was not happy. He could create a beautiful necklace from thin air, but could not change his face. At the very end, you see Belle’s other love interest shot with an arrow, turning him into another beast. This was because he was trying to get to the riches in the pavilion. While this illustrated the main lesson of the story, and answered the question of how the original beast came to be, it also left a definite loose end to the story. I believe that Cocteau left it there as a testament to the circular nature of fairytales, how there is always someone in need of the same lesson over and over again.