La Belle et La Bête (2014)

Remaking a film is as wearisome and unmentionably futile as copying a famous painting. The best you can do is a tribute, to a style, to a certain phrase of a design intuition which you have now converted into design reaction (Gus Van Sant learned this too well on his Psycho remake). Christophe Gans admirably refers to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 La Belle et La Bête while presenting a version of the fairytale that should read as authentic even to those who have only seen the Disney one. What he does not do is capture the original’s symbolic poetry or frame the old pieces in such a way that their retelling is a revelation. Watch Blancanieves, a modern, silent, Spanish Snow White, to see a fairytale adapted to a modern age and empowered by hindsight with the compressed gem of all its essential folklore. The scattered carbon dust around its edges, when scooped up and piled comfortably into a reputable sum of parts, would resemble this La Belle et La Bête.

The original began with Cocteau writing in chalk to his audience about the demeanor he would like them to assume for his fantasy. Wisely, Gans realizes that nowadays we’re already willing to do this, conditioned by a century of Disney magic and the digital phantasms we carry in our pockets. As a reminder rather than an inquisition, he begins with Belle – unmistakably, though we only see her lips and chin – telling this story to two young children. Beginning this way is smart and responsive to the expectations of modern audiences, but the storybook thing isn’t unique anymore. Cutting back to it throughout the movie is corrosive to the fantasy. Cocteau, even to an audience that probably needed it far more, did not intercut himself periodically once the first splash of fairyland was dripping down our eyes. La Belle et La Bête (2014) negates itself.

But that’s no disastrous thing in a world this easy to be lost in. The Beast’s outer gardens are a pastel wonderland, the forest is uninviting, scragglish, and cruel (this is a time to invent words, a time to invite their auditory aesthetics to play over the skeleton of their letters). A scene on a frozen lake desolates the eye, mythic and calm, Belle a speck of color on the frigid blue, pursued by a trail of utter white in the haunting shape of a frowthish Beast. He lands on her, the camera enters the lake. They nearly kiss, he on the brink of some ecstatic hunter’s high and she clearly willing, dilated, heaving. The ice cracks and the camera looms out to catch her shadow on the cobalt lake water as he pulls her up by her bodice. The bottled sexual energy is palpable.

Against Condon’s newer Beauty and the Beast (2017) the shots in the Gans version at least catch this energy to fuel the drama within each scene. The characters are not assigned the Xerox copy of emotions of other, better-drawn ones. Both of them still however insist on providing the Beast with a literal origin story, as though the prequel series on Netflix has already been signed for a season.

One thing of central importance to Cocteau’s living poetry was the anonymity of the Beast’s origin. The ponderous circumstances of how he became beastly are always narratively paradoxical. How do I mean? Since the Beast must be redeemed, his past can never be evil enough for him to deserve the curse in the first place. The ends nullify the means.

Take the Disney film. Is it his rudeness, as though no one else in the world is rude? Or did he just piss off the wrong witch? Either way, explanation will always declaw the Beast. Cocteau knew it, and offers us the tapestry of our darkest suspicions to wonder how bad he was as a man, what murderous intent now causes his paws to smoke with a fresh kill. What if it’s the simple rage within him that has always made him a Beast, without a plot’s ticking clock for incentive? Gans doesn’t get this, though his version of the origin is more interesting than most, not because of what it is (punishment by the father of his lover, who turns out in fine Grecian fashion to be the God of the forest) but in how it is presented.

Belle receives dreams from the Beast’s castle about the dance floor in its lush, forgotten decadence, the parapets without their moss, the Beast without his claws. A hunter prince (Vincent Cassel) falls for a fair maiden, but his obsession over his hunts drives them apart. At first, the film doesn’t even acknowledge that this is the Beast in his own past, as Belle’s everyday life twists (at one point the floor literally turns over into its past image) into a mirage of her captor’s past. She even assumes the role, briefly, of his nymphic lover, dancing in a castle which must belong to an unknown century lost to an age of pure fear and wicked masculine obsession. I wish this had been more in-camera and explored more deftly, the castle falling around her, the Beast’s past rising up like echoes in his halls. It tempts to be interesting but the true thematic motivation of showing it, as with literalizing the origin of something symbolic and ubiquitous, remains a mystery.

Ley Seydoux, my pick for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, is a Belle that those conjoined to the hip of the cartoon will call “cold” and “wooden.” What they mistake for a lack of depth is really just a lack of theatricality: there is no Broadway in this Beauty. There are no songs, no scenes of dishes cleaning themselves, no Rogers and Hammerstein money shots on provincial hills. Seydoux says a lot at a simple glance, and I bet she could have been mined for a deeper, more sensually conflicted performance. But because this film is thinking of the Disney one (of which I have no doubt – cute little doggie creatures say all there is about it) there’s a certain contrariness to Belle that does not exist in the Cocteau original. By being more sexually independent – at the famous dinner scene, Seydoux tells the Beast (Vincent Cassel with a cartoon face) “You couldn’t handle a girl like me” – and this just screams the Susan Egan Belle. The original was a flustered, blushy lip tease of power-play between Belle’s sexual desires and the Beast’s pitiable ambitions. Here everything gets confused by propriety, and Gans proves what Condon would reprove: this is not the story for it.

Actually, I believe much of what distastes me towards this La Belle et La Bête would be remedied by in-camera makeup for the Beast. The computer-generated face fares better than the new Disney one because his body and clothes appear as an on-set actor, which is brilliant: it means Belle, when she should be scared of her own arousal, is given the corollary of pretending to be scared of her handsome co-star. But no matter how well he is framed, he has no human eyes.

The cost in humanity is demonstrative across every aspect of La Belle et La Bête, from the sets which trail beyond beautiful and become too heavily rendered, to the final showdown between the castle thieves and giant cartoon statues that would be more at home in a Ray Harryhausen film or the video game, God of War. They themselves, however, are not demonstrative of Gans’ work, which is mostly reputable in the pursuit of Cocteau’s table scraps. They taste better than Disney’s, just by coming from a finer table. There’s something almost grand hiding in this Beast, though I have no single element to lay at the feet of its failures. The vision is vibrant, like a flash in the eye, almost hollowed out by its own brilliance, where a real light splayed across a lonely staircase might have done us more, and better. “Belle was scared,” she narrates of herself, “but more curious.” So was La Belle et La Bête.

Cast & Crew

Christophe Gans

Sandra Vo-Anh (scenario and dialogue) &
Christophe Gans (scenario and dialogue)
Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (book)
La Bête / Le Prince Vincent Cassel
Belle Léa Seydoux
Le marchand André Dussollier
Perducas Eduardo Noriega
Astrid Myriam Charleins
Anne Audrey Lamy
Clotilde Sara Giraudeau
Jean-Baptiste Jonathan Demurger
Maxime Nicolas Gob
Tristan Louka Meliava
La Princesse Yvonne Catterfeld
Louis Dejan Bucin
Thierry Wolfgang Menardi
Etienne Mickey Hardt
Virgil Arthur Doppler
Fanny Elisabeth Bogdan
Adèle Marie Gruber

Official Trailer

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