“Beauty and the Beast” – a live action French film
“Beauty and the Beast” – neither Cocteau nor Disney (a review)
Despite their timeless appeal, fairy tales are not set in stone and can be recast from one generation to another. “Beauty and the Beast” has been one of our favorites, and cinematically no version holds a candle to Jean Cocteau’s “La Belle et la Bete” from 1946. Next year Disney will release a live-action version, but for now we have one by French director Christophe Gans which stars Léa Seydoux and Vincent Cassel. All three of these films take liberties with the original tale by Madame de Villeneuve, and so we should be careful about judging one storyline against another.
I’m cognizant that the current film has been receiving mixed and largely negative reviews, but it’s a work with merit despite its shortcomings. I’ll mention both. It’s currently playing at Laemmle’s Monica Film Center in Santa Monica, and also at Edwards Westpark in Irvine.
Let’s run through the prologue. Belle’s father, a prosperous merchant (André Dussollier, perhaps the most convincing member of the cast), loses three ships and is ruined. Then one of the ships is found, floating and intact, and so certain siblings (there are three sons and three daughters; mother deceased) believe that they can move back into the city from their country home and again party like it’s 1999. Or at least resume their dissolute behavior.
But the creditors pounce, and the merchant returns with nothing.
Lost in a forest, and in the middle of a snowstorm to boot, he ends up in an enchanted castle. No one around, but there’s a sumptuous banquet laid out in the parlor of which the famished man partakes. The next morning he heads home, having selected a number of items from a treasure chest that magically appears (as does his horse, which had been left for dead after a fall), but as he’s leaving the grounds he glimpses a rose which he plucks for his youngest daughter, having already found (in the castle) the expensive gowns requested by his other daughters.
That’s when the Beast pounces out of the hedges and pins the terrified merchant to the ground. How dare you take what is most precious to me after I’ve given you my hospitality!
The merchant is only released and sent on his way after promising to return the next day. If he doesn’t come back the Beast will kill his family.
The Beast doesn’t get more horrific than this. He means business.
Belle, feeling she’s to blame, takes the horse, says the magic words, and finds herself on the grounds of the estate, the ruined castle in the distance. The film has invested heavily in special effects, and the castle complex is a bit reminiscent of medieval Bruges, if Bruges were overrun by greenery. Like her father before her, she enters the castle and finds no one. However, she discovers a room with a nice soft bed, lies down and falls asleep. When she awakens she finds a sumptuous gown, which she puts on and then comes downstairs for dinner.
So begins her relationship with the Beast, although it’s hardly off to a warm start considering that Belle expects the Beast will kill her at any time. After all, that’s what she’s there for, isn’t she?
What happens in the meantime is that our young heroine has dreams, strange dreams that reveal to her the backstory of the Prince-turned-Beast. We see that he was arrogant and perhaps not likely to keep his word, which comes around to bite him so that he’s cursed and turned into an animal, and destined to stay that way until someone shows up who might actually love him and agree to be his bride. Fat chance.
However, like two of the three ships owned by the merchant, Gans’ story loses itself along the way, first by pumping up a subplot in which the profligate older son is being hounded by a gang of ruffians for debts long overdue. Second, Belle’s sisters are simply too silly. Yes, they’re silly in the original and they’re silly in the tale of Cinderella, but they should have been modified a little for today’s audiences, and in fact all five siblings should have been given lesser roles. This is not their story.
Third, the “tadums,” Beagle-like creatures with big eyes which Belle says (with no proof) became her best friends, are sillier than the sisters. Fourth, how come there’s no sign of any other castle resident? Servants? Cooks? Housekeepers? Apparently the wonderful dinners prepare and cook themselves. Fifth, after the opening scene, the Beast looks less and less hideous (one exception being when Belle espies him eating). He looks like a lion in a crustacean outfit. Not particularly scary; not particularly ugly. I firmly believe that the film should have been darker.
Another complaint is that there’s not enough rapport between Beauty and the Beast to substantiate a belief that she truly falls in love with him, rather than perhaps only pitying him.
He doesn’t exactly take her to the theater or to a concert in the park, nor does he express an interest in books as happens in the Disney version.
Offsetting this, even if ever so slightly, are the special effects and the costumes. As the one who designed the latter, Pierre-Yves Gayraud has commented that they are balanced “between stylization and fantasy,” or Empire style (early 1800s) and Renaissance. Seydoux is an attractive woman, and at least the Beast sees to it that she’s dressed to the nines.
Regarding those special effects, one that stands out is when Belle is fleeing over a frozen lake and the Beast comes bounding after her. What follows is impressive. Also noteworthy is what happens after the Prince (pre-Beast) hunts and slays a golden deer, thus precipitating his misfortunes. Lastly, there are some colossal stone figures towards the end of the film that seem to have stepped in from another movie or fairy tale, even though visually they hold their own.
But, in my view, there are too many stray parts and the story doesn’t cohere, although it is often pleasant to watch. Lastly, the cute epilogue is not very convincing. The film, like the merchant, got lost in the forest. Unlike him, however, it never found its way out. ER
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