It’s often fascinating to see a new take on an established property. Beauty and the Beast, originally a French fairy tale written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (say that name five times fast) published in 1740, has been adapted countless times, each iteration being wildly different. Obviously, the version that most people associate with is the 1991 animated Disney version, which took many liberties that ultimately made it into a powerful animation (and the first-ever animated Best Picture nominee), despite changes to the source material.
Arguably the best and most faithful adaptation of the material is 1946’s black and white La belle et la bête, made in the source’s native French language. It’s an absolute classic that is still cherished and remembered to this day, even earning itself a complete remaster in 1995, making it look as beautiful as ever. It was only inevitable that such a classic would be remade.
The American Disney is, once again, making a new version of the tale, this time a live-action adaptation of its original animated classic, due out in 2017. Acclaimed French director Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf) had a similar idea in mind, but decided on an updated version of the original French classic. Originally released in 2014 in France, the new Beauty and the Beast (La belle et la bête) is finally coming to America in a limited theatrical run via Shout Factory! before an inevitable Blu-ray release. There was a reason why it took so long for someone to import this one stateside…
La belle et la bête stars Léa Seydoux, whose magnificent performance in Blue is the Warmest Color propelled her into the stardom stratosphere. She plays Belle, one of 6 children of a wealthy merchant (André Dussollier) who tragically loses his entire fleet of ships in a surprise tempest at sea. Now poor and desperate, the merchant moves his family into the countryside in a tiny cottage. In this small town, one of his son’s finds himself indebted to resident bad guy named Perducas, who in turn threatens the life of the merchant. The merchant flees and finds himself stranded out in the cold, only to come upon a gigantic and fantastical castle. In this castle he finds refuge and food laid out just for him, as well as many of the riches he lost. He takes these things and leaves, but not before he plucks a single rose from the yard of the castle.
That is when the Beast (Vincent Cassel) who occupies the castle makes himself known, demanding the merchant stay in the castle as a prisoner, or else he will murder his family one by one. Belle, against her father’s wishes, takes his place in the castle and a relationship between Beauty and Beast ensues.
If you found that last paragraph long and unwieldy, that’s a good catch. This film takes nearly 30 minutes to set all of this up before it even gets to the Beast and this is just one of the symptoms of this films dreadfully slow and uneven pacing. It also does not help that the tone of the film is bleak and sad for the majority of the film, save for random moments where weird CG creatures appear for some sort of comic relief. Cut to the chase, this film is wildly messy and incoherent. Despite having one of the greatest classics as source material, the film does not seem to understand the moral of that story and why certain plot elements are introduced. The lesson of the original fairy tell becomes lost in a film devoid of rational character logic and underdeveloped plot strands that do not need to exist. The film takes on so much over its nearly 2-hour running time, but neglects to do the most important thing: actually develop a romance.
This is the final nail in the coffin for this movie. Despite the unfocused script and an over-reliance on unmotivated and poorly rendered CG effects, this could all be forgiven if the romance at its core was effective and sweeping. The sad reality is that it is virtually nonexistent. Belle only shares a few scenes of dialogue with the Beast, but every time they speak she is repulsed by him. It does not help that the intentions of the Beast have been messed with by the writers during their adaptation process to make him feel more predatory. There is not a single moment of true chemistry or bonding between the two. In fact, the final interaction they have together before the outrageously goofy third act battle sequence is one of life threatening danger and manipulation. When the moment comes where the audience is supposed to believe that there is a bond between the two, it comes across as Belle having some sort of Stockholm syndrome with her rather aggressive captor.
Not only does this feel terribly outdated in 2016, it only succeeds in reminding audiences how previous incarnations of this story were able to take the captor/captive dynamic and justify it in a way that feels achingly romantic and beautiful. Who else remembers the incredible ballroom sequence in Disney’s version? Not only is it accompanied by a beautifully timeless Howard Ashman/Alan Menken song, the passion and love that has formed between our title Beauty and Beast is so palpable and sweet that it hurts. This French film also attempts a ballroom dance, also featured in the source material, but instead of beauty turns it into a scheming affair only meant to be a means to an end. What is supposed to be the peak of this love story’s arc completely falls flat on its face.
Bafflingly enough, Beauty and the Beast (La belle et la bête) received decent reviews when it was released in France. This is possibly due to the sometimes enchanting visuals, though even these become ruined by atrocious CG effects later on. Critics overseas have not been swayed, however, and I have to count myself among them. La belle et la bête is a joyless and lifeless mess of a film with bizarre narrative choices and zero romance. Go watch any other version of this story. This is the worst of the bunch.