MOVIE REVIEW: Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bete)
2016 Chicago Critics Film Festival selection
"BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (LA BELLE ET LA BETE)"-- 4 STARS
All eyes are on the hotly anticipated live-action "re-imagining" of Walt Disney Pictures' enormously successful "Beauty and the Beast" from 1991. That March 2017 sure-fire blockbuster will garner tremendous attention in its attempt to honor the animated Best Picture Oscar nominee and double Academy Award winner. In the meantime, the fairy tale's home country of France throws down its own gauntlet to give Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve's 1740 original story the grand, epic big-screen treatment it warrants. Let's just say the French sure know what they are doing.
Director Christophe Gans ("Brotherhood of the Wolf") presents "La Belle et la Bete" starring two of France's national treasures, Lea Seydoux and Vincent Cassel. Read from a self-made illustrated storybook to two young children for bedtime, this tale weaves its story. When a wealthy and widowed merchant (Andre Dussollier) loses his fortune, he is forced to move his six grown children from their high society finery to a humble country cottage. The only child enthused about the change is the homely and unspoiled daughter Belle (Seydoux), who tends gardens and enjoys the beauty of nature.
Fleeing a brash debt collector named Perducas (Eduardo Noreiga of "Open Your Eyes (Abre los Ojos)") into the snowy forest, the merchant father arrives at an enormous abandoned castle overrun by invasive plants. Seeking shelter from the cold, the Father enters to find to rich furnishings and huge spread of food. Clouded by the decadence, the man finds he is not alone and provokes the monstrous head of the household when he tries to take a single red rose for his daughter Belle. The Beast demands the father's servitude in exchange for sparing his family. Soon enough, Belle takes his place and becomes a fateful resident of the castle.
The young woman explores and begins to encounter the magic within while meeting her master each evening for dinner. In dreams and visions, she learns that the Beast was once a prince (Cassel) deeply in love with a princess (Yvonne Catterfeld) before he brought on his own tragedy and horrific transformation. True to its well-known history, only mutual love is going to change curses and fates.
With its thicker back story, Christophe Gans's film more closely follows the traditional fairy tale and replaces the mainstream song-and-dance with lavish macabre elements fueling its melodrama. Standing as its own distinctive interpretation, the film offers its own fantasy imagery and creations. Think Tim Burton if he took his Adderall instead of PCP. The subtle feline edge, special effects, and impressive makeup work for Cassel's Beast from long-time creature designer wizard Patrick Tatapoulos is top-notch. The lone Burton-like weirdo ingredient that feels misplaced as an unnecessary distraction are an odd litter of playful, warped beagles with over-expressive eyes out of a Margaret Keane painting. Quirks aside, no sumptuous expense was spared between Thierry Flamand's phenomenal physical production design and the lush matte backgrounds that give everything a rich depth, glow, and sheen. The film is utterly breathtaking, top to bottom, in styling and artistry.
Where this "Beauty and the Beast" falls ultimately short is in the romance department. The film is missing the next gear of romantic power this timeless fairy tale intended. The lukewarm feelings of afterthought and partial boredom shouldn't happen with attractive and desirable stars with the caliber of Seydoux and Cassel. A duo like that should elicit swooning, and even sexy, chemistry and palpable desire to makes its eventual victory all the more resonating and powerful. The visuals make the greater impression and raise the thermometer more than the love story. This weakness is the one element that truly holds "La Belle et la Bete" from being a complete success.
LESSON #1: DON'T MESS WITH A NEIGHBOR'S PROPERTY-- If you want something from a neighbor's place, like maybe a cup of sugar or a lovely and possibly enchanted rose, have the decency to knock on their door and ask first. Don't just take and risk pissing them off.
LESSON #2: THE DIVISIVE CONTRASTS THAT RESIDE IN EACH OF US-- There is an ever-present allegory connected to the dichotomy of the title "Beauty and the Beast." It speaks to the dueling opposites that wrestle with each person's inward and outward personalities. You have a beautiful woman with tenderness instead of contempt. You have a violent beast with tremendous fragility. The contrast between the perceptions and illusions of inner and outer self-image has always been a central theme to this fairy tale that transcends to the audience.
LESSON #3: SELFLESSNESS AS A CORE VIRTUE-- The Prince's mistakes that led to his curse and transformation were born from selfishness and broken promises. In Belle, we see the opposite, an unselfish and tender person who puts others before herself and a daughter who trades the fate of eternal servitude to save her family.