Ever watched a 30-second perfume commercial and thought “Man, the decadent wonderland they’ve created here is so glorious and rich I wish this could go on forever?” No? Well, neither has anyone ever, but that hasn’t stopped Christophe Gans from addressing that imaginary need with his ghastly, overblown “Beauty and the Beast,” whose 112 minutes certainly feel like an eternity, and which fails on such a grand scale of pomp and over-ornamented visuals, that, robed in splendid scarlet satins, its failures practically preen.
Starring Léa Seydoux, in a role that must have taxed the “Blue is the Warmest Color” actress to the very limits of her ability to heave her breasts and fall over things prettily, and pixels representing Vincent Cassel (the unconvincing CG Beast was a motion-capture creation, though he is himself in the pointlessly extensive flashbacks), the film gets literally every single narrative decision it makes wholly wrong, deviating from the widely known version in ways puzzling, unnecessary and ultimately immensely, crushingly boring. But an even more astonishing feat, bearing in mind the legacy of the “Beauty and the Beast” story which counts Jean Cocteau’s lovely 1946 version and the terrific 1991 Disney animation among its infinitely better adaptations, is just what a totally emotion-free zone Gans’ movie is. For a film supposedly about the transformative power of love, there is frighteningly little chemistry between Seydoux and the pixels representing Vincent Cassel; and for a story whose moral is famously about not judging books by their cover and trying to look beyond the surface of things, it give us nothing but surface. And even that surface, as lush and hyper designed as you’d expect the “Brotherhood of the Wolf” helmer to deliver on a €33m budget, is pockmarked with bad CG and, not only in the Beast’s case, poor creature design.
This extravaganza of emptiness begins, of course, with the opening of a book as Seydoux’s voice reads a bedtime story to some adorable moppets (“Could the story possibly be about the reader herself?” is one of the many things we failed to wonder throughout.). Anyway, borrowing some elements from the original mid-18th century story, like Belle having two sisters, and then pointlessly adding others, like her narratively superfluous three brothers, the film mires itself in an uninvolving backstory about Belle’s merchant father’s trading ships: they’re lost at sea and the family, all of whom are rendered as paper-thin caricatures, (and not even funny ones), except for the preternaturally sweet and devoted Belle, has to move to the country in its reduced circumstances. But then a ship is found and they’re restored to wealth except then it isn’t and they’re not. If it feels like we’re taking a hell of a long time to get to the point, well, that’s how we felt watching the film. Shouldn’t we have seen something of the Beast by now?
He does eventually make an appearance, as Belle’s Dad stumbles on his wish-fulfilling castle but pisses Beast off by taking a rose. Belle ends up offering her own life in place of her father’s, and is duly installed in the castle where the world’s most romantic Stockholm Syndrome story can then take place. Oh, and there’s some hokum about a big CG mirror which Belle sees in her dreams and which helpfully tells her the entire origin of the Beast—your typical prince-marries-princess, prince-shoots-fawn, fawn-turns-out-to-be-princess-who-was-a-nymph, nymph’s-father-makes-prince-a-beast story. Oh, and there’s a villain, some dude with a scar and a gang that includes a comely, mysterious Tarot card reader.
But Belle and the Beast share so little screen time that the central relationship never develops even remotely convincingly and the dialogue they share, in fact the dialogue throughout, is risibly awful (and on this print’s subtitles, seemingly poorly translated to boot). The narration recurs at a couple of junctures, but only ever to add some detail, like about the creatures called, I think, “Tadums” that appear to be bad-CGI magically mutated beagles that scuttle around the palace and “became her best and only friends”—something of which we never once see an actual instance. And then, boom! Without warning, cause or any, you know, romance, Belle is hey presto in love with the “hideous” beast, and rushing to his side when she believes she may have inadvertently brought danger to his door.
And hideous he really is, though not for the reasons original writer Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve probably envisaged all the way back in 1740. In fact he’s entirely unthreatening, and while modelled on the same kind of leonine design that has become the standard depiction, here, the fur, the face, the dead CG eyes all conspire to make the Beast almost totally inexpressive. Visually, outside of the creatures, though, the film does up its game, and a few tableaux—the snowy forest, the storm-battered ships, the gone-to-seed opulence of the Palace—seem to be much more where Gans’ heart lies than with the people who wander in and out of them. Those, and Seydoux’s palace costumes of course which are almost all rendered in jewel tones and of cuts that find constantly innovative ways to draw attention to her milky cleavage.
But just as often, these scenes, as sumptuous and lavish and Hidden-Object-Game-detailed as they are, become slightly hysterical in just how many new curlicues and camera flourishes can be layered on top of what essentially is a shot of, say, Belle looking at a tree. Indeed there are times when the camera cranes up and away in a sweeping arc for absolutely no reason other than because it can, and every time that happens, I found ourselves distracted by trying to read a point into it—my education in filmic language kind of programs me to attempt to find extra significance in a shot or sequence that is so dramatically presented. But no, nothing there, it is simply a factor of over-design. Similarly at one point Belle attempts to escape which gives Gans and DP Christophe Beaucarne the chance to mount a should-be thrilling set piece chase across a frozen lake. But when the ice inevitably cracks and we get the beautiful underwater shot (we won’t even get into why it is that it’s Belle, that slip of a girl, who goes through while the hulking, pounding Beast behind her does not) again I think, well this must be a huge, pivotal moment of… oh no, the film cuts to Belle waking up in her bed and doesn't refer to it again.
In fact, it got to the stage where even the film’s one partway redeeming feature—its occasional prettiness—started to grate. The choking pictorialism of the sets and CG backgrounds, coupled with the barely-there performances, contribute to an inescapable sense of lifelessness and sterility—a quality that kills stone dead any green shoots of empathy, let along any investment or tension, that might have been trying to break through.
You might ask what I expected. It is, after all, “only” a fairy tale, a children’s story. But fairy tales are part of the common consciousness precisely because they give us a means of understanding the mysteries of life and learning its lessons through allegory, and whether an adaptation aims to dive deep into those currents, or merely to deliver a glossy entertainment, the resonance should be somewhat built in. But there is nothing wise or even witty about Gans’ adaptation—even the slightly altered “revisionist” epilogue feels tacked on, connected to nothing that went before and probably a tip of the hat to the PC brigade who would otherwise (rightly) regard the film’s gender politics as regressive. At one juncture, when a certain animal has transformed into a certain naked woman via a graceless cheat of a transition, the reaction of the audience at the press screening summed up perfectly my feelings toward the silly grandiosity of this entire project: in the moments of would-be quiet tragedy that followed the would-be revelation, the soundtrack instead was provided by a couple hundred people tittering derisively, and not a few light snores. [D]