French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s classic fairy tale La Belle et la Bête is no stranger to cinematic adaptations. The 1991 Disney classic remains a pop-culture masterpiece, and many a film nerd champions Jean Cocteau’s 1946 retelling (starring Jean Marais in then-revolutionary prosthetic makeup as the Beast) as the pinnacle of film fantasy. With a live-action remake around the corner for Disney, it’s interesting to look at 2014’s Beauty and the Beast, directed by Brotherhood of the Wolf and Silent Hill director Christophe Gans, as a litmus test for the continued relevance of the tale. Just how many times can you revisit a story famously referred to as “a tale as old as time”?
Gans’ approach to the material is to offer the kind of sumptuous, detailed update to the Cocteau classic that the upcoming Emma Watson Disney adaptation will presumably take to the 1991 animated Beauty and the Beast – offering straightforward, uncomplicated storytelling with a dash of modern CG and a few twists here or there. This time around, a few more cues are taken from the original fable: Belle (Lea Seydoux) is the youngest of the three daughters of a wealthy merchant (Andre Dussollier) who finds himself taking shelter in the mansion of the grotesque Beast (Vincent Cassel, brooding under an unconvincing feline CG mask). Beast gives him one day to put his affairs in order before returning to the mansion to die, but Belle offers herself in her place. While she lives as his captive, she learns more about the Beast’s backstory and how to love him.
The chief appeal of Gans’ Beauty and the Beast is its sumptuous, ornate production and costume design, and the flamboyant glee with which Gans’ camera captures it all. The whole look of the film is right out of the modern Disney playbook, with sharp contrasts of color and artificially luminous landscapes that delight the eye, almost to the point of sensory overload. Gans’ playful and indulgent camerawork ensures that every one of Seydoux’s vibrant dresses gets a long dolly shot around it, and no opportunity for a visual tableau goes ignored. By all metrics, it’s an absolutely stunning film to look at, despite the saturation of high-budget green-screen fantasy we’ve seen ever since The Lord of the Rings.
However, thanks to a combination of the film’s length (a bloated 113 minutes), the inherent limitations of the fairy tale itself, and the sheer oppressiveness of the film’s visuals, Beauty and the Beast runs out of steam just as it starts to get going. After all, it’s the world’s oldest story about Stockholm syndrome, which is tough to update no matter what glimmers of defiance and agency Seydoux attempts to infuse into her version of Belle. Meanwhile, Cassel struggles to emote through the equally unconvincing facial animations of the Beast, and he and Seydoux (both fantastic actors in most contexts) lack the chemistry to help sell their romance through pounds of dated computer fakery and tight corsets.
Instead of gallivanting with a cast of dynamic supporting characters in the castle, Belle is stuck learning about the Beast’s mythic origins in contrived and overlong dream sequences. Her only non-Beast companions are a herd of deformed puppy-like creatures which curiously lurk in the shadows around her (presumably to hide the dodgy CG with which they’re rendered). Outside of the castle, the characters fare little better – the sisters, who exist for comic relief, are annoyingly unfunny, and Belle’s three brothers (manufactured for the film) are thinly drawn. Even the beautiful visuals start to get in the way after a while, as the Maxfield Parrish-inspired images become repetitive.
Trading the expert minimalism of Cocteau’s classic for garish, flamboyant visual splendor may have seemed like a good idea, but Gans and crew forgot to fix the film’s pace and cultivate chemistry between its two leads. While Gans is a visual master, his vision of Beauty and the Beast is more thorn than rose.