Fairytales are up for grabs, so it seems pointless to call Christophe Gans’ La belle et la bête a remake of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film. In the interim, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s story has inspired at least three live-action versions, a Disney animation, a couple of TV series, a Broadway musical and an ice-skating spectacular.
Gans’ film is more likely to suffer from direct comparisons, though, simply because it’s French. Cocteau’s version of the tale isn’t just a Criterion-worthy classic and triumph of the film-maker’s art – it’s nothing less than a national monument, cobbled together on minimal resources while the country was still reeling from the bitter legacy of the Second World War and the Nazi occupation, a shining vision amidst the post-war gloom and deprivation.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that the further the new film strays from Cocteau’s scenario, the more fun it becomes, though the fun is not necessarily of the high-tone kind. This is fine; Gans is not known for art movies. His CV includes horror (Necronomicon), a manga adaptation (Crying Freeman), historical fantasy based on legend (Le pacte des loups aka Brotherhood of the Wolf), and game-based horror (Silent Hill).
Each of these has its moments, some of them amusing or entertaining, some just very silly, but none has ever stood the remotest chance of appealing to serious-minded Cahiers du Cinéma-reading cinephiles, being more of interest to genre-loving readers of magazines such as Starfix, where he once worked as editor. (The title of a 1981 short, the first film listed on Gans’ CV, is Silver Slime, which plays on English translations of the names Dario Argento and Mario Bava, though I see no evidence of their influence in the film under discussion.)
It begins with several familiar framing devices rolled into one – the printed text of a book, being read aloud by an unseen mother to her two small (and excessively precocious) children, lavish illustrations merging with the live action of the story. The framing devices are ultimately revealed to be not what we thought, though since this is presented as a minor narrative twist, I won’t say any more.
So it’s out with the practical magic, in with the CGI as the familiar story unfolds – Belle’s merchant father (reliable veteran André Dussollier) loses his fortune in a storm at sea, gets lost in a forest and finds himself wined and dined in an enchanted castle, but makes the mistake of picking a rose, and so forth. I’m sure you know how it goes, but there’s little point in setting out a blow-by-blow comparison to Cocteau’s film. The new version is a different beast entirely, so let us try to approach it on its own terms; I won’t always succeed, but I will try.
The story trundles along quite sluggishly to begin with. And I couldn’t tell whether it was a deliberate artistic decision, but the first 40 minutes or so seemed quite murky and oppressive – like a badly configured 3-D film, or as though too much of it was shot with day-for-night (though there’s no evidence any of it was). In any case, the screen lightens up, in more ways than one, when we begin to explore La Bête’s domain, and everything starts getting prettier and more colourful – flowers, frocks, landscapes.
I liked the way the forest really did seem impassable – that is, until the forest spirits, or the gods of nature, or La Bête’s invisible bouncers, or whatever, decide to let travellers pass. The thorny thickets really tear at riders. Belle’s father tumbles down an icy cliff that would kill a lesser fairytale merchant, and by the time Belle arrives at the castle, her hands are scratched to ribbons, though her face gets only a couple of small, photogenic lacerations.
The castle itself is somewhat unprepossessing at first view. It’s not clear who is preparing the hearty feasts (they’re just the result of Beast-magic, I guess), but lurking in the shadows is a bunch of cute animated critters who might be the result of cross-breeding an Ewok with a Mogwai, with a dash of meerkat. They present Belle with a terrifying voodoo doll version of herself, but instead of screaming and throwing it away, she seems touched by their handiwork (but how? how did they make the doll? Look at them!) and starts treating them like the adorable household pets they clearly aren’t.
The magic mirror of Cocteau’s film is replaced by a couple of vertical ponds of CGI static that enable Belle (and us) to learn the Beast’s back story in a series of extensive flashbacks – he was a Prince who allowed his addiction to hunting and killing defenceless animals with his buddies to destroy his domestic bliss with a lovely Princess. I have read at least one suggestion that our getting to know him in princely form is an advance on Cocteau’s film, in which Jean Marais in make-up as La Bête is more appealing than as the fairytale Prince he turns into at the story’s end. This anomaly is seen, in some quarters, as a weakness of the 1946 film. But not so! This is one of its strengths.
Indeed, since we have already seen the character played by the eminently appealing Vincent Cassel, and since La Bête’s make-up is masklike and quite expressionless (he looks more like a cartoon Aslan than the furry beast in the poster at the top of the page) there’s no sense of loss or even really change at the final transformation. But still – this is Vincent Cassel, one of the most electrifying presences in contemporary world cinema, so it seems churlish to complain about there being too much of him. You can never have too much Cassel.
My jury is still out on Léa Seydoux. Even before the film has started, the screen is showing the name of her grandfather, Jérôme Seydoux, co-president of Pathé, one of the film’s three production companies (the others are another French company, Eskwad, and the Potsdam-based Studio Babelsberg), so it’s not hard to sense a whiff of nepotism, as no doubt many have done before me. On the other hand, she was terrific in La vie d’Adèle (Blue Is the Warmest Colour), so I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. On the other other hand, she is adequate rather than exceptional as Belle, and sometimes bears a disconcerting resemblance to Renée Zellweger, never anyone’s idea of a fairytale princess (I’m referring more to Zellweger’s manner and acting style than to her looks, by the way, which are just fine, except when she’s making her pouty face).
Seydoux doesn’t really sell Belle’s change of heart towards La Bête, either, but then she is not well served by the screenplay, which settles for bullet points rather than credible emotional progression. I don’t think it’s a good sign that the Prince’s relationship with his Princess, in the flashbacks, seems more credible and involving. When Belle finally confesses her love, there’s a sense that stages have been skipped, and the writers (Gans and Sandra Vo-Anh) are relying too much on their audience’s prior knowledge of the story.
There’s also a subplot involving Perducas, a ne’er-do-well acquaintance of one of Belle’s brothers, whose function in the plot, clumsily integrated, is to trigger the climactic special effects-laden showdown by his greed. (He’s played by Spanish actor Eduardo Noriega, who doesn’t seem to have aged a day since The Devil’s Backbone, in which he played a similar though better drawn character.) He has a tarot-reading moll whose purpose in the narrative isn’t clear, since her sporadic warnings are too vague to be taken seriously either by her boyfriend or by us. The climax itself is utterly preposterous, justified by the plot in only the most spurious way – but it is a riot. Suffice to say, when I started watching La Belle et la Bête, I was not expecting to end up being reminded of Pacific Rim.
Not one for the ages, then, but also not without its entertainment value, especially towards the end when it goes off the rails. Some of the CGI is used well; some of it (attacking vines, fairydust) is technically proficient but naff enough to make you reflect that, whatever a pre-CGI effects team might have come up with, it would almost certainly have been more interesting; and some of it (a doe) is frankly unconvincing. And then there are some effects that are totally bonkers, which I’ll leave you the pleasure of discovering for yourself.
Things I Liked:
- the enchanted forest
- Belle’s frocks
- the Beagle action!
- the out-to-lunch ending
- Vincent Cassel
- a couple of other things I’m not going to write about here, because I consider them spoilers
Things I Didn’t Like:
- the Beast make-up
- the vertical CGI pond, no substitute for a good old-fashioned magic mirror
- the lack of attention to the central relationship, leading to Belle’s change of heart
- the fairydust
- the angry vines
ETA – a comment I posted during a Facebook discussion of this film and its extraneous characters with Amelia Mangan:
“No, the sisters are there – I just couldn’t be bothered to write about them. She also has three brothers, two of whom are nogoodniks. But I couldn’t be bothered to write about them either. Which probably tells you all you need to know. Maybe I’ll just add this post to the review at some point, for completion purposes.
Here are the first two paragraphs of a piece I wrote about Cocteau’s 1946 La belle et la bête for the Telegraph website.
If 2013 was the Year of Snow White, then 2014 looks all set to become the Year of Beauty and the Beast. A new version of the fairytale, directed by Christophe Gans, is due to open in France in February; Blue is the Warmest Colour‘s Léa Seydoux plays Belle, Vincent Cassel is La Bête, and to judge by the trailer, there will be picturesque landscapes, pretty colours and all the CGI effects that a 33 million euro budget can buy. And Ewoks. Don’t forget the Ewoks.
It’s a long way from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 black and white La Belle et la Bête. Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s story, first published in 1740 though better known in its abridged version by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Barbot de Villeneuve’s original ran to over 100 pages, and ended with the Beast turning into a human prince only after his marriage to Beauty had been consummated; it was a veiled commentary on the custom of the day by which young girls, who had few legal rights, were married off by their fathers to men much older than themselves.
To read on, please click on the picture of Jean Marais and Josette Day in Cocteau’s 1946 film.
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I do love that poster. In fact, my heart skipped a beat when I saw it. But after reading your review, I’m thinking I’ll just enjoy the poster and skip the film. Nothing on earth can compare with the superb Jean Cocteau version anyway. I always feel sorry for people who haven’t seen it.
Perhaps we should ENVY people who haven’t seen the Cocteau, because that means the treat of watching it for the first time still lies ahead of them!
The Gans version isn’t awful, exactly, but nor is it very memorable. In fact, I’d almost forgotten all about it till I saw your comment (for which thanks).
I suspect the main problem is that state-of-the-art digital effects are just no replacement for cheaply cobbled-together practical ones, which require imagination and ingenuity. I hate banging on about it, because I think CGI is useful when used wisely. But when it’s placed centre-stage, it does have a tendency to kill the magic.
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