It’s not quite a tale as old as time, as Disney would have it, but La Belle et la Bête has indeed been around for a while. Published in 1740, predating the founding of the United States, the story has been adapted directly for the screen about a dozen times, and channeled thematically many more. Christophe Gans‘ latest version, seemingly timed to beat the Disney live-action remake to the punch, goes back to the source material for a very different version, though he ends up also incorporating influences from other filmed versions (including Cocteau, Disney, and King Kong) and some Greek/Roman mythology for good measure. Like his other fantasies—The Brotherhood of the Wolf and Silent Hill may come to mind—it’s rich in visual imagination. If only there were a little more faith in the visuals’ ability to tell the story by themselves.
This Beauty and the Beast is narrated throughout, as if we’re in danger of not “getting” a story this familiar. The apparent reason for the narration feels even more condescending: a woman is reading the story to her children from a book, yet the camera is careful never to show the woman’s face in full, or include a wide enough shot to suggest what time period the room’s decor might be in. If you have any trouble guessing why this might be, perhaps narration is necessary, but nobody’s likely coming to Beauty and the Beast for some last-minute twist-that-isn’t.
But that is the movie’s only major problem. Over-explanation aside, the story feels new again thanks to Gans’ contrasting the familiar source with a new, traditional movie structure. Belle’s father (André Dussollier), named only The Merchant, is now the main character of the first act, only to be reduced to a near-silent prop in the subsequent two.
He has more children, including the obligatory spoiled sisters of every fairy tale, and a ne’er-do-well son in debt to a criminal named Perducas (Eduardo Noriega), who become this movie’s version of Gaston, without the charm and popularity. When one of the Merchant’s ships sinks, the family is bankrupted from the loss and must move to the country; but when it is found again, he goes in search of it and finds that various legal and contractual loopholes have made the merchandise no longer his. Fleeing for his life when Perducas tries to hold him responsible for his son’s debts, the Merchant finds the Beast’s castle, full of rich food and lavish gifts. It’s like the perfect solution to everything… if only the Merchant would have known about the unspoken commandment: Thou Shalt Not F*** with the Beast’s Rose Bush.
From here, you know where the story goes. Belle/Beauty (the subtitles call her Belle, undoubtedly so as not to confuse Disney fans, but the word means “beauty” in French) saves her father’s life by going to the Beast’s castle to take his punishment upon herself, at which point the Beast acts like an entitled manbaby and expects her to fall for him just because he gives her nice clothes and good food (actually, it’s about ethics in castle tenancy). Meanwhile, she has visions of a bygone time in the castle when a prince tried to woo another young maiden by hunting an elusive golden deer on her behalf. It isn’t always clear at what point Belle puts the pieces together and figures out who the prince is; we, of course, are way ahead of her because it’s Vincent Cassel, who also plays the Beast under many layers of digital makeup. On the same token, Belle is played by Lea Seydoux, and of all the big French names internationally, these two are about the most perfectly cast stars for the project.
The third star of the film is its special effects. Gans’ love of CG tentacles is in full effect with the sentient vines of the Beast’s garden. Along with many dreamlike castle rooms, we get giant living statues, vengeful pagan gods, and a morphing, snow-covered forest. The Beast’s hounds have been cursed with him, though they got the good end of the deal, having been transformed into what amount to living Funko Pop Vinyls with opposable thumbs, capable of making yarn dolls for Belle. When they eventually go back to being dogs, it seems a bit unfair.
While it’s unlikely to replace your favorite filmed version of the tale, be that Disney or Cocteau, Gans’ Beauty and the Beast may work best as something to show to bored teens who think the story sounds lame. It’s definitely the most in line with modern fantasy movies and video game sensibilities, and nobody sings in it. I’d give it four burritos if I could somehow delete the omnipresent narration, but since Blu-ray will presumably allow me to turn off the subtitles, I’ll only knock it down to a 3.5. If you want to disagree in comments below, then…
…wait for it…
…BE OUR GUEST!
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 burritos.
Featured Image: Shout Factory
Luke Y. Thompson is a member of the L.A. Film Critics’ Association, part of the Rebel Alliance, and a traitor. Take him away! Er, follow him!