La Belle et la Bête posters

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Clive’s posts last week about Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (here, here and here) sent me back to the film, a most welcome re-viewing. This in turn had me searching for copies of the posters of which these are some of the better examples. No dates or credits, unfortunately, although the French ones above and below look as though they may have been drawn by the film’s production designer, Christian Bérard. (Update: not Bérard, they’re the work of poster artist Jean-Denis Malclès.)

The style of Bérard’s drawings, and much of the film itself, had me thinking this time round of Hein Heckroth, Michael Powell’s favourite production designer whose sketches also had a painterly style. Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (with designs by Heckroth) appeared a couple of years after La Belle et la Bête although Powell doesn’t mention Cocteau at all in his autobiography so there’s no need to go looking for influences. Both films are based on fairy tales, of course. Powell shared Cocteau’s taste for fantasy and cinematic magic although the closest he gets to the story of Beauty and the Beast is Peeping Tom (1960), a film that contains little of either. By coincidence, Powell scholar Ian Christie calls Peeping Tom the director’s equivalent of Cocteau’s Le testament d’Orphée which was also released in 1960. But that’s a speculation for another day.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The writhing on the wall
Le livre blanc by Jean Cocteau
Cocteau’s sword
Cristalophonics: searching for the Cocteau sound
Cocteau at the Louvre des Antiquaires
La Villa Santo Sospir by Jean Cocteau

Michael Powell’s Bluebeard revisited

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Yesterday’s post prompted me to look again for one of Michael Powell’s scarcest films, his television version of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle made for  Süddeutscher Rundfunk in 1963. Sure enough, it’s now on YouTube in a watchable copy taken from VHS tape. Herzog Blaubarts Burg (to use its German title) was made post-Peeping Tom when the director’s career was at its lowest ebb, and while the production values don’t match those he’d been used to in the 1940s he was no doubt happy to be working at all after being vilified by the UK press. Norman Foster is Bluebeard and Ana Raquel Satre plays Judith, with the libretto being a German translation with English subtitles. I ought to note here that I’ve not read the second volume of Powell’s biography (mea culpa) so the only information I have about this comes from Ian Christie’s Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (1985). Christie doesn’t have much to say about it other than pointing out that Norman Foster financed the film, and that it’s seldom been screened in Britain: IMDB has the first UK screening as 1978, just prior to the time when Powell and Pressburger began to receive to some belated recognition.

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The YouTube copy suffers in the sound department by being a muffled mono transmission but it’s the visuals which will be of most interest to Powell aficionados. Powell & Pressburger’s regular production designer Hein Heckroth created the multi-coloured labyrinth which serves as the castle. The overall effect is stagey but contains some unique details, such as the rune-etched standing stones shown at the opening and close, and also some painted moments similar to those seen during the celebrated dance sequence in The Red Shoes (1948). Powell’s staging is much more vivid and artificial than Leslie Megahey’s 1988 adaptation whose Gothic gloom remains a personal favourite. Despite its shortcomings, when compared to the other Powell films that came after—the two Australian features, the Children’s Film Foundation commission which reunited him with Pressburger—this is far closer to the greatest works of the Archers era, and provides a more satisfying career coda for the man who directed The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Joseph Southall’s Bluebeard
Leslie Megahey’s Bluebeard
Powell’s Bluebeard
The Tale of Giulietta

Powell’s Bluebeard

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The subject of yesterday’s post, The Tales of Hoffmann, was the closest Michael Powell came to realising his concept of the “composed film”, a work which would combine performance, music, lighting and set design to create something which was unique to cinema. The central ballet sequence in The Red Shoes is another example of this, and Powell & Pressburger had plans to follow Hoffmann with similar works, including something based on The Odyssey which would have had contributions from Igor Stravinsky and Dylan Thomas. None of this worked out, unfortunately, Hoffmann was less successful than was hoped and the Archers partnership was eventually reduced to making dull films about the Second World War until P&P went their separate ways. The scandal of Peeping Tom in 1960 finished Powell’s career as a filmmaker in Britain, but he managed to return to the composed film concept in 1963 when production designer Hein Heckroth asked him to direct a production of the Bartók opera Bluebeard’s Castle for German television. Heckroth was responsible for the distinctive character of the later Archers films, including The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffmann, but was working here with greatly reduced resources. Being a great Bartók enthusiast as well as a Powell aficionado it’s long been a source of frustration for me that this hour-long film is one of the least visible from Powell’s career. To date, the stills shown here are about the only visuals one can find.

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Bluebeard: Norman Foster.

Bluebeard’s Castle was Bartók’s only opera, a tremendous work and a lot easier to digest than some being a one-act piece for two singers: bass (Bluebeard) and soprano (Judith, his wife-to-be). The fairy tale of the murderous husband is turned into a psychodrama with Judith’s successive opening of the castle’s seven doors revealing more than she wants to know about her suitor’s personality. The libretto by Béla Balázs drops the last-minute rescue of the heroine by her brothers for a darker conclusion. The simple storyline and pronounced symbolism—the doors are often given different colours, while the rooms to which they lead each have a symbolic decor and import—lends itself to a variety of interpretations. Needless to say I’d love to see how Heckroth and Powell presented the drama. To whet the appetite further, one of the P&P sites has this account of a recent screening.

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Judith: Ana Raquel Sartre.

There are many other filmed versions of this opera, of course, and YouTube has the usual motley selection chopped into opus-ruining ten-minute segments. The BBC screened a fantastically gloomy version in 1988 by Leslie Megahey, director of many fine TV documentaries including the major Orson Welles edition of Arena in 1982 and a chilling adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Schalcken the Painter. His Bluebeard has been released on DVD in the US, and YouTube has an extract here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Tale of Giulietta
Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes
Béla Bartók caricatured