Stars – Vincent Cassel, Lea Seydoux
Director – Christophe Gans
Released by Shout Factory
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
The classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast has been brought to the screen in many incarnations. It was even adapted as a TV series twice; once in 1987 and again in 2012. At this point the animated Disney version from 1991 has taken on all comes and beaten them soundly. The Mouse stands tall. Yet even Disney can’t resist going to the well again with the promise of a new live action version due any moment with the lovely Emma Watson star of the Harry Potter films as Belle. It will be a 3D extravaganza that promises to hue closely to the champion animated version. While The Mouse roared another version came out two years ago. Christophe Gans who created the incredible mix of fantasy, martial arts and period drama with the cult favorite Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) helmed his own version. This one draws much more inspiration from the classic 1946 film version by Jean Cocteau. Gans has created a visual tapestry using a fascinating array of CGI artistry. Everything you see has been artfully crafted as if by a Renaissance artist rather than an army of digital technicians. The look of the film is the star and it sparkles as bright as the north star in the night.
The construction of the film follows the familiar narrative much in the way that the Cocteau film did with a few additions. The story used to center more around The Beast yet over the years the point of view has become that of The Beauty. Belle has two greedy sisters, two adventurous brothers an a father who has just gone broke. The father stumbles upon a castle deep in the woods. There he finds food and riches which he grabs for his family. Belle has only asked for a rose unlike her siblings. When the father picks a rose the beast jumps out of nowhere. He is outraged that the bountiful food and shiny trinkets were not enough. He will have to pay with his life for stealing the rose. Back he goes to say goodbye to his family. Only Belle returns instead of her father to pay his debt. She accepts that she was the one who asked for the rose. Rather than take her life The Beast gives her free reign of the grounds as long as she agrees to join him for dinner every night at seven o’clock. Their relationship and the gradual falling of Belle for The Beast is the real crux of the tale. This unfortunately is the part that gets short changed in Gans’ version. There is not a lot of characterization for either lead but more importantly we don’t get to see them slowly warm to each other. The budding of their romance cuts to the full bloom without letting us enjoy the opening of the petals.
The film opens with a mother reading a story to her two children, similar to the bookends that framed The Princess Bride. At a few of the scarier parts we revisit this scene for just a moment. Mom asks her children if she should carry on with the story or are they too scared. The boy sits in wide eyed wonder, his sister clutching his hand. Yes, please go on. In the beginning of the film colors are held in check. When the father visits the castle it is foreboding, full of grisly dark details. The trees have sharp branches that reach out like tendrils. However with Belle’s appearance there the entire landscape transforms like an enchanted forest. The foreboding clinging dead vines are now a trellis of pretty flowers. In a flashback sequence we see a lovely girl and a valiant man. He is a hunter and we imagine him to be The Beast before he was transformed. He has a group of lovely hunting beagles that are beyond cute. In a neat turn these beagles have been reimagined as small furry lemur looking creatures with adorably large eyes. They inhabit the present story and hide under the bed. Again the look of this movie is a pleasure to take in.
At first we do not get a clear look at The Beast. We see glimpses of him. His face is reflected in glasses and highly polished dinnerware. When we do get a real good look several things stand out. The face clearly has more feline features. There are whiskers and a large lion-like nose. The hair is coiffed in a very regal way that absolutely recalls the 1946 Cocteau version. It’s a mask alright but not like any mask we are used to. It has been digitally created. Through a motion capture process Vincent Cassel’s facial acting has been preserved. Those are his eyes, his lips, his voice and yet he moves behind a highly detailed face that has been CGI’d on top of his own face. Sure it looks good but it is a bit difficult to get used to. Cassel is a fantastic actor, capable of subtle nuances that he brings to this role. He’s most well know for The Black Swan but he has done many excellent parts. He worked with director Gans before in Brotherhood of the Wolf and starred in Mesrine (2008) with an amazing portrayal of a gangster who has a flair for disguises. He moves wonderfully in this film. Lea Seydoux is beautiful and very compelling here. Gans says in his interview that he spotted her in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010) and knew she was his Beauty for this film. Both actors looks so good in front of scenery that is often breathtaking. It’s a shame that we don’t get the interaction between them that the story calls for.
Gans’ la Belle et la Bete works best as a visual odyssey. The paintings he creates on screen will stop you in your tracks. As we watch the three interviews included with Gans, Cassel and Seydoux it is revealed that 90% of the film was created digitally. For me the CGI succeeds exceptionally well with the set design. Films like Sin City (2005), 300 (2007), and The BFG (2016) have opened this kind of filmmaking up in unbelievable ways. I’m an old school fan of practical effects. I love the look of hardscrabble landscapes in John Ford and Howard Hawks westerns. CGI has become a favored paintbrush that is used now. It may have looked sloppy and cheap when it first started. In the right hands (and there look to be quite a lot of them judging by the credits at the end of many films) some real artful sequences can be created. I absolutely appreciate the look of the film. I am entirely enchanted by it. However all of this is in service of telling a good story. Gans comes up short with the relationship that is backbone of this fairytale. While that may seem unforgivable it is very easy to get caught up in illustrations on the pages of this fabulously illustrated storybook. Like a good children’s book the pictures are intoxicating.
Video – 2.35:1
This is a stunning looking film. Images are drop dead gorgeous. The look of the Blu-Ray comes out measurably better than the included DVD.
Audio – DTS-HD 5.1 in both English and French, Dolby Digital 5.1 in both English and French with subtitles offered in English.
In the dubbed English version the actors speak with genuine French accents. The French language version is preferable though. Music and effects supports the story but the visuals will always be paramount in this film.
Extras – Interviews with director Christophe Gans, actors Vincent Cassel and Lea Seydoux, Theatrical trailer
The interviews are done in French with easy to follow English subtitles. Gans is always a good interview. He reveals his inspirations for the film and speaks highly of the Cocteau version. He also goes into good detail about the CGI effects. It is fascinating to hear Vincent Cassel describe how the mask was created. He breaks down the three step process he had to use achieve his performance. He says he had to depend on a whole team of digital artists to help realize his portrayal. He also admits this is the first of his films he can let his kids see.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :
Blu-Ray – Excellent
Movie – Excellent (for the visuals)