There has been a recent resurgence in Hollywood interest in the territory of fairy tales, with a number of films in recent years drawing from the fantastical and timeless source material of writers like Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm (though you get the feeling that it’s always the Disney classics rather than the literature that from ground zero for the adaptations), spawning a number of straight treatments (Cinderella) to the self-aware twists on the material (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters). There’s any number of theories about the newfound attraction to this material, and one has to be that in light of the increasing criticism about female representation in cinema, Hollywood studios have turned to one of the main literary and dramatic traditions which do favour female protagonists, but not necessarily making that extra step at addressing the underlying gender issues that plague male-orientated Hollywood escapism. Now the prolific French film industry wants in on the action with the latest adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, but stumbles at this same issue; a narrative that turns the talented lead actress into a plot device, combined with an overly ambitious visual style that sinks the whole affair.
Without rehashing the well known fairytale, the ‘Beauty’ is Belle (Lea Seydoux, Blue is the Warmest Colour) a young woman who stumbles into the forest of the Prince/Beast (Vincent Cassell) and finds herself trapped in the Beast’s castle – free to roam the grounds, but required to dine with him each evening at 7pm. Despite this regime of fear, she eventually has dreams about his backstory – unaware that his previous wife was an incarnation of a forest nymph, he kills her when she is in the form of a deer, and is condemned by the gods of the forest to remain a beast-like creature until a woman can love him in that form. The fable hasn’t aged particularly well – the burgeoning love story was always at worst a case of Stockholm Syndrome, and at best male entitlement (“if she only knew my story…”) that strips away any of Belle’s agency or romantic self-determination. These concerns could be alleviated with some liberal alterations, but writer/director Christophe Gans doesn’t lift this project over this. Seydoux is a talented presence on screen, but she just doesn’t have much to do. Nor does her love for the Beast develop out of anything on screen except for the dreams she has explaining why the Beast is this way, and why he had to trap her in his castle; she falls in love with him because the story arc requires it.
The visual style of the film, however, is the most conspicuous facet to the viewer. There are undeniable highlights in costume and production design, but the frame is often quite cluttered and overstimulating, and despite some bravura camera motions and shots (Belle falling into an ice pond) the film’s visual style is brought down by a reliance on CGI that is mercurial in quality. Interiors are generally fine though unsubtle, but some of the creations outside of the castle less so – the creatures that the Prince’s dogs were turned into look like something from early development sketches for the Madagascar movies, and a scene of a deer being chased through a maze (stylised and slow-motion; this film’s Winklevoss rowing sequence) plays out like a 1990s Windows screensaver. Ultimately, this is a watchable affair, the go-for-broke visual style does offer some rewards almost by accident, and Cassel brings an intensity and charisma to the beast that makes the scenes in the castle at least far more compelling than the very weak period drama scenes among the townspeople. Madman’s Blu-ray offers strong fidelity to the film’s vision – which in this case is both a blessing and a curse – in addition to two 5.1 audio tracks, of the original French in addition to an English dub in case you somehow wanted this film to feel even more inauthentic.