La Belle et la Bête (2014): Written by Christophe Gans and Sandra Vo-Ahn, directed by Christophe Gans. Starring: Lea Seydoux, Vincent Cassel, Andre Dussollier. Running Time: 112 minutes. Based on the original fairytale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve.
Rating: 1/4 Stars
I will not conceal or skirt around my disappointment- I expected more from a live-action re-imagining of a classic French tale starring Vincent Cassel and Lea Seydoux. It’s not bad in the sense that it does anything wrong, and at times the visual design approaches genuine beauty. But any goodwill I have towards the film’s engrossing costumes or sets is undercut by the fact that, underneath all the admittedly pretty eye candy, there’s just nothing there. At all.
The story we all know and love is narrated to us by a woman (who IS NOT Belle, let me make that clear) reading the tale out of a storybook for two young children (not Belle’s, obviously). Belle (Lea Seydoux) was the youngest of the 6 children of a wealthy merchant, who, after some bad luck with his ships, loses everything and is forced to move a house in the country (most definitely not the house where the children are currently being read this story- nope, most definitely not). The possibility of financial redemption briefly draws him and his oldest son back to the city, only to very promptly learn that their hopes were premature. I say promptly, because it happens in the next scene, but clearly large swaths of time have passed, for ‘twas summer when they left and now everything is under snow. This angers the son, for very obvious and legitimate reasons, who leaves, and apparently rips off a gang leader (his scar proves that he is Evil), whom the father then inadvertently crosses, causing him to flee into the woods, where he happens across the realm of the Beast, played in full-body-and-face makeup by Vincent Cassel.
….…Good Lord, just writing that made me realize how utterly nonsensical the entire setup in the first act ends up being. Yeesh.
Food and drink are waiting for the father, provided by the Beast’s minions. Quick side note, instead of charming, funny, and musical household items, in this version the minions are what you would get if a Jawa mated with a Dachshund (yes, I’m sure there is a DeviantART page for that- no, for the love of God, do not post a link). Along with food, he finds chests full of everything on the list of desired goodies for his remarkably memorable and fleshed-out not-Belle children. The only thing missing? A single rose, the only gift Belle (who, I repeat, is not the one narrating the story) wanted for herself. As he sets out to leave, he attempts to pick one, but is then caught by the Beast, and told that if he does not return within a single day after delivering the gifts to his children, they will all be killed.
This, of course, is what drives Belle (STOP it, she’s NOT the narrator, guys!) to offer herself to the Beast as a prisoner in order to save her father, leading to the emotional center of the entire story- Belle’s long-term imprisonment, her struggles to come to terms with her new life, and her developing relationship with the Beast as she tries to find out the secret behind his curse (spoiler alert; the secret is that it’s a terrible waste of a twist).
And sadly, even then the movie does not start to get more interesting. And it was at this point that I recognized the film’s biggest issue, and a rather frightening one at that- you could swap out Seydoux and Cassel for pretty much anyone else, and it would not make one bit of difference in terms of the emotional impact of the story or characters. Why this is, I do not know, but I would ere on the side of blaming the direction, or perhaps a bad contract with the studio. We all know Seydoux can be a force of nature, but here, she doesn’t even appear to be trying. She simply walks on-screen and announces, “Hi. I am innocence embodied, y’all. ‘N stuff.” Cassel seems to be trying to pull the old dark-and-mysterious routine, but I can’t tell if he does it well, because the suit he’s stuffed into allows literally no facial wiggle-room with which to convey emotion. That was perhaps an inevitable advantage Disney had when turning the story into an animated film- the physical limitations of makeup preventing the Beast to show emotion and growth simply do not exist in the animated world.
The script may also be to blame- every single story point is hit with a dead, perfunctory note, like the screenwriter was just checking off each point on his list of “Every Plot Point That Must Be In A Beast Movie.” No character is given a line or moment that didn’t come across as trite exposition, and the sad result is that what should be a sweeping, magical, fairy-tale epic feels instead like an empty shell inside which something died several weeks ago.
My disappointment in this movie’s shortcomings is made all the more potent by the fact that the sets and visual design are perfect for the kind of mystical feel they obviously want the movie to have. The colors jump and blend and contrast with each other wonderfully- pure white snow, blood-red and sky-blue and emerald-green dresses, mounds of roses, sunlight literally bathing the screen in gold- there’s one magnificent image of Belle falling into a frozen lake that set off every “prettyprettypretty” bell in my head. The design of the castle and its interior is great- too bad we see next-to-nothing of it. The Jawa-hound-mutants have an admittedly interesting design, and the narrator-who-is-not-Belle says they became her best friends during her captivity, but we really only have her word for it, because aside from a single scene that establishes that the entire pack basically stalks her everywhere, they are almost nowhere to be seen the entire time.
This is a pretty movie, a very, very pretty movie, but it’s superficial sheen only serves to make me more aware that, in all the areas that matter, this movie fails to deliver anything I could say was worth remembering afterwards. If you like elaborate, old-school French get-up, have at it, but there are many other, better movies that can satisfy your most fashionable needs.