Few fairy tales come with as much cinematic baggage as Suzanne Barbot Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast. In addition to being an allegory for young girls forced into arranged 18th century marriages (particularly after former-governess Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont abridged the story), it has been stunningly adapted to movie screens at least twice, first as Jean Cocteau’s dreamlike 1946 fantasy and then again when Disney turned it into an animated musical extravaganza in 1991. The latter has so much adoration that Disney is already counting the millions it will make from millennial nostalgia by combining those songs with the visage of Hermione Granger in 2017.
Still, the American versions are increasingly stepping away from the very French and courtly roots of the original tale, favoring Broadway levels of bombast. Hence, there is plenty of room left for French auteur Christophe Gans to leave his own stamp on it with La Belle et la Bête, a new French language interpretation of the classic tale that distinctly enjoys Gans’ strengths and liabilities. Consequently, the film is closer in many respects to Villeneuve’s elaborately plotted fairy tale (for better or worse) and has a visually breathtaking ornamentation, like a dazzlingly decorated storybook cover. It’s just when you open it up, you realize the pages of fanciful prose are few and far between.
Beginning with all but the words “once upon a time,” the new version of Beauty and the Beast opens on a world that may seem foreign in numerous ways to those reared on the Disney musical. Rather than being the only child of a crackpot inventor, Belle (Léa Seydoux) is the youngest child of a well-to-do merchant family in Paris, albeit hardly a member of aristocratic invulnerability. Learning a taste of both Dickensian times to come, Belle’s father (André Dussollier) loses his fortune when three of his credited ships vanish in a storm. Disgraced before Parisian society, the merchant and his six children (three daughters and three sons) must move in shame and sorrow to the country.
However, when one of the missing ships is found, the father believes that there will be an opportunity to regain what is lost and writes down the frivolous desires of all his vain children—Belle is the only one who shirks materialism by requesting simply a rose. Alas, fortunes turn again and the father is once more destitute when he arrives at a mysterious, desolate castle. There, he finds food, wealth, and all of his children’s wishes waiting for him, almost as if they’re gifts—but there is nary a rose. Those flowers only grow on a tree in the back, and to take one would mean your life. Nevertheless, the father cannot resist…
Eventually, the Beast (Vincent Cassel) does show up, demanding a lifetime of compensation for the flower taken from his deceased wife’s garden. And Belle inevitably will come to offer herself in exchange for the old man, gaining a world of gilded luxury, jewel-colored dresses, and questionable digital animals in the process.
The impulse of imagining a modern version of Beauty and the Beast for a new generation of international moviegoers is tempting, and Gans makes a commendable case with a visceral experience that is every bit as captivating in its better moments as the filmmaker’s best film, Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001). As with that movie, Gans demonstrates a penchant for 1700s pageantry that is here granted even more sumptuous decadence since the story doesn’t pretend it could have existed in anything resembling our world.
Additionally, his film seems influenced less by Cocteau or Disney than by Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. When relying on lush sets and a color palate so rich that it will give your eyes high-cholesterol inside of five minutes, the film echoes the indulgences of Eiko Ishioka, and costume designer Pierre-Yves Gayraud and cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne relish the opportunity. Unfortunately, like so many of Gans’ previous movies, including Brotherhood, these visual marvels are consistently undercut by egregious amounts of poorly rendered CG.
The computer animation is every bit as copious as Gans’ numerous close-ups of his leading ladies’ décolletages, but the ill-advised graphics distract in a very different way. Admittedly, the motion-capture used to create this very feline-esque version of the Beast’s face seems unavoidable, and is often passable since the rest of Cassel’s body is wrapped in a crimson suit of armor. Yet, Gans’ own questionable add-ons to the fairy tale, including moving monolithic statues, and a prancing deer of solid gold in his most misjudged flashback sequence, are frequently superfluous and underscore that the filmmaker’s visionary reach is far exceeding his budgetary grasp.
The irony is that these sequences were obviously unnecessary since there are far too few scenes between Belle and the Beast. Prior to the third act, the two characters share about six scenes together paced over the span of a long-weekend before plot machinations require them to be in the sincerest of loves. Whether Cassel and Seydoux have any chemistry is thus hard to judge, because while both are fine independently—which often requires one to brood and one to look beautiful in so many dresses—most of their shared moments are derived from the awkward small talk that arises when a kidnapper and his victim have nothing to say. Otherwise, the romance is left to an invented backstory involving the then-human beast and his first, long-dead wife offering visions of their past to a sleeping Belle.
Coupled with a completely pointless villain shoehorned into the third act, the movie somehow feels curiously empty despite all the appealing craftsmanship wrapped around the presentation. A more authentically French reimagining of this classic is still a lovely idea, and the film’s concupiscent diversions certainly suggest no American studio would release this to a family audience. But its over-plotted and under-animated drawbacks ironically paint a picture far less alive than Hollywood’s two-dimensional drawings of 25 years ago.
Beauty and the Beast opens in select cities on Sept. 23.