Director Christophe Gans adapts the classic French fairy tale of unexpected romance between the youngest daughter (Léa Seydoux) of a ruined merchant and a lonely Beast (Vincent Cassel) who was formerly a prince.
BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL: ‘I want my beast back!’ wailed Greta Garbo, famously – and perhaps apocryphally – after seeing the regal creature transform into Jean Marais in Cocteau’s 1946 masterpiece. I know, now, how she felt. ‘My’ beast remains that one, designed by Christian Bérard and lit by Henri Alekan; almost 60 years on, the film remains one of the most magical and seductive of cinematic experiences. Yours might be the 1991 Disney cartoon creation – which, in ‘Something There’, at least offered a showcase for the crooning talents of Law & Order’s Jerry Orbach.
But whatever our differences on their respective merits, rest assured: neither of us will view this remake with anything but distaste.
Coming off Silent Hill and Brotherhood of the Wolf, Christophe Gans is that most unwelcome of all directors: the steroidal hack who fancies himself an auteur. (See also: Zack Snyder, Baz Luhrmann…) He has a certain stylistic facility – he can frame a shot, he knows how to stage an action- – but displays little ability with (or even interest in) actors, much less regular human emotions. His camera is always in motion, constantly prowling – though not in the sense of a Max Ophüls or a Miklós Jancsó, to attest to the contiguous nature of the milieu being depicted. He simply fears boring the audience, were it to remain still for a whole 10 seconds.
Likewise, he favours extreme close-ups (and after Blue is the Warmest Colour, I now feel I know Léa Seydoux’s face in more intimate detail than my own) – but not for what they might tell us about character. Rather, it’s a compensatory device, like the bombastic score. Intended to communicate the very emotional intensity which the drama lacks. CARE! the images practically shout at us. CARE ABOUT THIS PERSON! Because you must. They’re filling the entire screen.
But the truth is, you don’t care. Indeed, you often barely notice them, so cluttered are the visuals, and so piecemeal the storytelling. In this version, for no good reason, we open with a framing device: a mother reading the story to her two small children, wide-eyed poppets who might as well be made of rags. From which we cut to a set-up familiar from the Cocteau, and from de Villeneuve’s original story, though excised from the Disney: the pure-of-heart Beauty (Seydoux) suffering callous mistreatment from her abominable older sisters, even as she tries to lend emotional support to their soon-to-be-destitute father (played, with admirable sang froid, by Andre Dussollier).
So far, so faithful. Except that there are now three brawny brothers as well, who do precisely nothing to advance the narrative, but prove handy when the villain – a scar-faced bandit – turns up. The fact that he has no particular attachment to Belle herself, that his plotline only serves to obfuscate the central story, appears not to have occurred to anyone. Likewise, the superfluous back-story accorded the Beast, which only results in further digressions, and more tedious, time-consuming flashbacks… Or the gigantic stone creatures, who appear for no reason whatsoever, and seem to have accidentally wandered in from Clash of the Titans.
But then, somewhere along the way between development and execution, Gans and co-writer Sandra Vo-Ahn also seem to have forgotten that this is meant to be a love story. Instead, as the plot complications grow stickier, and the pacing of scenes more hectic, any concessions to romance are left far behind – until by the final act it’s abandoned altogether, giving Seydoux and co-star Vincent Cassel (who’ve displayed remarkably little sizzle in their preceding scenes) little to do besides stare at each other, like two strangers who find themselves trapped in the same elevator.
Indeed, Seydoux – so remarkable in Blue is the Warmest Colour – is mostly terrible, here: too often reduced to either a slack-jawed incredulity (meant to convey ‘wonder’) or her trademark petulant moue (‘defiance’). As for Cassel, whatever he was attempting, performance-wise, is rendered impenetrable by his make-up. Smothered in prosthetics, reduced to a furry mask, his Beast is about as expressive as Tom Hardy’s Bane.
In recent years a number of French filmmakers have plundered their culture’s fairy tales – most notably Catherine Breillat, whose Bluebeard and Sleeping Beauty each offered a robust, slightly cerebral take on their respective source-materials. But those were art movies, confined largely to the festival circuit; this one is determinedly, unapologetically commercial, aimed at the same mainstream – and deploying the same CGI-driven, more-is-more aesthetics – as recent Hollywood confections like Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), and Catherine Hardwick’s Red Riding Hood (2011).
Yet, in view of its dismal French opening, it’s worth noting that almost none of these films has done quite the business their makers hoped for. One must conclude that younger generations of viewers – who constitute their primary demographic – are either ignorant of these stories, or else prefer their own sustaining mythologies (Harry Potter, Twilight, etc.).
This one complicates matters further, not only by the incoherence of its storytelling, but by resorting, in the final act, to some surprisingly graphic violence. The result is curiously muddled, neither fish nor fowl – too dark for kids, but also way too cornball and hokey for adults, who’ll almost certainly grow weary of Gans’ forced attempts at comic relief – mostly via some CGI-animated critters that look like Gizmo from Gremlins, crossed with mutant dogs. Taking the place of the household items who accompany Belle during her time in the castle in the Disney film, these… things soon become her 'best friends'. Which might almost be convincing, except that we never see her so much as once acknowledge their presence.
Even aesthetically, it’s a wash. Cocteau’s version is magical mostly because of his prodigious visual imagination: not only utilising many simple in-camera tricks – slow motion, reverse footage – to achieve a sense of dream-like unreality, but also conjuring from his unconscious some genuinely nightmarish images… like the candelabras in the castle corridors being human arms (an image Polanski appropriated wholesale for Repulsion), and the doorknob a human hand.
Here, production designer Thierry Flamande gestures toward Cocteau’s vision – the castle’s densely moss-covered walls, the sense of nature overtaking and erasing the works of man – but overdoes everything, filing the frame with so many visual effects, and so many painterly references (Caspar David Friedrich, Andreas Achenbach) that it becomes, finally, a kind of visual white noise. You endure it – first bored, then exhausted, and finally cranky.
To conclude, then: in place of poetry, we get prose. In place of a story, a string of set-pieces. Instead of magic, mere spectacle. Which is to say: this is the Vegas version of this belov’d classic – expensive, gaudy, boisterous, and vulgar, a four-alarm fantasy with all the enchantment drained out. If there’s a more apt bellwether for our times, I haven’t seen it.