For most American audiences, Walt Disney’s animated version of Beauty and the Beast is probably the only version they know. And the 2017 live-action remake doesn’t appear to deviate much from its cartoon predecessor. While these films will no doubt be considered fine cinematic experiences, they are very different from the original French version, which has its own charms. La Belle et la Bête, which was originally released internationally in 2014, is finally coming to US theaters and is a much more faithful retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story than any other version in recent memory. Moreover, this film is one of the most visually striking movies that any audience will see, managing to truly feel like a fairytale come to life. Some storytelling choices may not make this the best Beauty and the Beast version, but it certainly feels the most authentic.
A prosperous merchant (André Dussollier) has three sons and three daughters, the youngest of which is Belle (Léa Seydoux), who is a ravishing beauty and a kind soul. Unfortunately, the merchant’s ships are sunk by a terrible storm, taking with them the merchant’s fortunes. Now destitute, the merchant’s family is forced to move to the country. By chance, however, his ships wash ashore, giving him hope of restored fortune. The merchant sets off to find out what can be salvaged, but before leaving, he asks his children for what they would like him to buy them while in the city. Most of the children ask for petty things, but Belle simply requests a rose because they don’t grow in the country. Unfortunately for the merchant, he discovers that his recovered merchandise was sold off to cover debts, and he remains penniless. On his way home, the merchant gets lost in the woods and finds himself at the entrance of a great castle. Inside is food to nourish him and a chest full of the gifts he promised to buy his children. Sated, the merchant is on his way home when he sees a magnificent rose bush and remembers Belle’s request. But as soon as he plucks a rose, the merchant is set upon by a terrible beast who demands the merchant’s life as payment for the rose. The Beast (Vincent Cassel) gives the merchant one day to say goodbye to his family. However, once home, Belle overhears her father’s ordeal and returns to the beast, taking her father’s place.
La Belle et la Bête is gorgeous to behold and does an awe-inspiring job of breathing life into the illustrations of a storybook. Other films have used this mechanic before, but never executed as well as here. Director Christophe Gans wisely kept the visuals heavily artificial with plenty of CGI splashed across the screen to present a not-quite-real reality. Instead, La Belle et la Bête exists in middle plane of being where only the imagination can tread. Ganz manages to give audiences a window into that world, and it’s difficult not to get lost in it.
Where the film breaks down is in some of the storytelling. The Beast seems particularly obsessed with Belle becoming “his”, going so far as to menace her early on, but there’s too little interaction between the two characters for there to be much meaning in the exchange. Later, when the Beast begins to woo Belle and asks her to love him, the situation feels sudden and forced since there hasn’t been much of an arc in their relationship. It seems as though more time had passed in the film than what audiences understood, and perhaps a longer running time would have served the film better. A sizable portion of the movie is spent revealing the Beast’s past as well as developing the villain in the movie (Eduardo Noriega), but it just feels like an excuse to show Cassel out of makeup, since these scenes don’t add that much to the story, and fairytales don’t require that much backstory.
The acting is hit and miss, but that might have something to do with American sensibilities clashing with a foreign film. While everyone performs adequately, some exchanges seem off due to what feels like missing scenes that would add more context to dialog and actions. If there’s one role that disappoints, then it’s the Beast. The makeup team did an outstanding job in transforming Cassel into a furry-faced monster, but the acting doesn’t quite capture the role’s beastly nature. Perhaps it was an acting choice to play the Beast as more urbane and intelligent with his humanity intact, but a more animalistic performance still feels more natural for a man who has spent an uncertain amount of time with all the physicality of an animal. The performance isn’t bad, mind you; it’s just unexpected.
La Belle et la Bête is a pleasant surprise and a joy to visually consume. Clunky storytelling aside, this is a film that US audiences can still appreciate for its heart and its whimsy. And with another Americanized version around the corner, it’s nice to experience a more authentic incarnation while we can.