In the words of G.K. Chesterton, the noble lesson behind the fable of the Beauty and the Beast is that one must be loved in order to become lovable... Someone treated like an animal will become an animal, someone treated with worth, dignity and beauty as a human being will become a human being.
Demonstrating this in the story itself is always difficult. It always proves problematic for writers and filmmakers to make a credible leap in projecting this wonderful truism into a tale about a woman who falls in love with a literal animal who is a vicious, abusive brute. That he is an animal and the romance would take on morally discomforting overtones is one thing. That he spends a good portion of the story being a monster within as well as a monster without makes it that much more troublesome. It is even open to modern criticisms that it teaches girls to stay in relationships with abusive men in the vain hope that their love will somehow shine through and heal the abuser.
Such is the secular interpretation. A more sacred one sees in the timeless story an allegory of the amor Dei, the love of God for humanity. In such a reading, humanity is the prince whose cruelty turns him into little more than a walking beast. From beyond the Beast's isolated world where, in the gaze of cruelty and hate, other people have become mere objects, the Father enters. The Beast, unable to conceive of the Father's motives of love, imprisons him in a deathly web of dogma. To liberate the Father, the Daughter most fair comes, whose relentless love redeems the Beast's humanity.
Of course, such an interpretation runs against the flaw of the strenuous relationship between the two protagonists. French Surrealist artist Jean Cocteau suffers no less from this dilemma. He practically dispenses with the attempt to justify how it is that the engenu Belle comes to have affection for the Beast. In one scene she is shouting him out of her chambers, and in the next she is allowing him to lap water from her hand. Their relationship is layered with all manner of psychological complexity, as might be expected, but the Beast is not the abusive character seen in other versions. His crime is to keep her captive, which he is able to do by her own sympathy. Nonetheless we must make the leap to accepting that somehow she sees something in him that is not apparent to us.
Such is love!
It is a leap, however, that Cocteau asks of us from the beginning. In one of the most touching breaks with the fourth wall in cinema, the director begs the indulgence of the audience in allowing those magic words of childhood - "once upon a time" - to forgive any lapses. Forgive him we must, and to forgive him we cannot help. In the end the story is very charming and full of redeeming compassion.
The film's theme is elaborated by understanding the drama at play beneath it. The lone actor to play the Beast and Belle's semi-villainous suitor, Jean Marais, was the gay lover of Jean Cocteau, and Beauty and the Beast can easily stand as an allegory of the trials of homosexual affairs in an era before their social acceptance. To be lovable one must be loved, and love must search out the inner depths and inner identity of another to find that hidden self.
However the story is treated, what truly stands out is the artistic direction and set design. While inspired by the work of Gustave Doré, the film lacks the strong contrasts in light and dark which are characteristic of his later and best work. The sets are intimate, devoid of the massive scale of the sublime (due in no small part to the scarcity of resources following the Second World War). One does note resemblances between Doré's well-appointed and overgrown fairy tale chambers and those of Cocteau, however.
Where it excels is in describing a quintessential haunted manor. In fact, it is said that the design elements of other, more famous haunted mansions were inspired by such pieces in Beauty and the Beast as the wall-mounted candleabras comprised of moving arms. There is an eerie aura of forboding and mystery to the moving sculptures with their leering eyes, the aforementioned candleholders, the doors that open and sheets that pull of themselves, and the billowing drapes in darkened corridors. It frequently swings from enchanting to frightening, though never reaching the scale of a horror film. This is still a fairy tale.
Beauty and the Beast is an unsung classic, occupying a place in artistic film of the mid-century where, once discovered, it enshrines itself in the heart as a masterpiece.