Panna a netvor (1979), Juraj Herz’s re-telling of Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve’s fairytale La Belle et la Bête, is a tour de force in style and composition. In comparison to Jean Cocteau’s masterful adaptation of 1946, Panna a netvor is at the least its equal. Though Juraj Herz’s version is strikingly different from Cocteau’s version, Herz still borrows certain images and effects from the earlier film in as much of an homage as out of necessity.
Julie (Zdena Studenková) is Beauty; a virtuous and beautiful young woman. Netvor (Vlastimil Harapes) is the Beast; a nobleman driven mad by the curse that has turned him into a monstrous falcon-like creature. The shallow depth and misty, amber tinged compositions that make up the cinematographic dialogue of Netvor’s manor are as in debt to the Dutch Masters as Julie’s appearance and the golden light of her dream sequences are an amalgamation of Rococo aesthetics. In film both styles, as distinct as they are, represent signifiers of the Gothic tradition; the dark shadows of impending doom and menace surround and threaten the ornate world of the living and the innocent.
Herz has clearly studied this most famous of tales and drawn from it its most provocative, disturbing and violent themes. Netvor is unlike any Beast. We see him trample a fawn along the edge of a lake with his steed so that he may drink its blood. Such acts of animalistic violence draw parallels between the fabled fairytale and the Germanic myths of centuries before. “Beast” is taken literally in Panna a netvor.
Beyond the nightmarish realm of Netvor’s estate is a wood enshrouded in mist and the village where Julie’s family resides. Before Herz gives the viewer a glimpse of the carnage to be wrought by Netvor there is a montage of villagers butchering livestock for a feast. Images of hogs being gutted is directly juxtaposed with images of a couple ascending to a hay loft to make love, children at play, and groomsmen drunk in the street. The barbaric animalism of Netvor, isolated and singular, feels as though it is really an extension of humankind’s general behavior as a society.
The terror of Herz’s vision is that these acts of violence are perceived as commonplace. Breathtaking images of death and decay are met with acceptance by the revelers in the village and by Julie at the manor. Julie’s innocence is so pure that she accepts the conditions of her captivity readily. Likewise Netvor, as he falls in love with his prisoner, grows to accept his own beastly nature as inherent, believing that his only true release can come with death.
To that end the conclusion of Panna a netvor is rendered rather ambiguously by Herz. As Julie cradles Netvor’s dying body in her arms as she weeps the monster fades away and the visage of man appears. Herz then cuts to a long tracking shot that reprises the opening image of Julie’s dream sequence from earlier in the film. This could suggest a literal fulfillment of Julie’s dream or it could be interpreted more allegorically. Perhaps the Beast did die in Julie’s arms and now all that exists is her memory of a fantasy.
The remarkable thing about Panna a netvor is that, for all of its terror and macabre atmosphere, it never ceases to feel like a fairytale. Herz is able to capture a sense of primal wonderment in all of his images as if he were a child who had just opened its eyes for the very first time. The fantastic imbues every frame so that Panna a netvor is tremendously affective. To see these uncanny images through Herz’s gaze elevates Panna a netvor to the same kind of untouchable level of masterpiece as Cocteau’s La belle et la bête.