La belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast) 2014 Review

Posted: March 1, 2014 in 2014 Berlinale, Foreign, Reviews
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ImageWord of a new French film version of Beauty and the Beast brings with it certain expectations. The timeless story did begin as a French fairy tale, and the 1946 movie directed by Jean Cocteau is considered a milestone in fantasy filmmaking. Would this latest effort wrest back the title of Most Popular from Disney’s animated gem? Would it be a dark rendering, an adult version emphasizing the sensual themes? Or perhaps a more smart ass, satirical take with a sassy 21st century heroine?

The answers arrived with a leaden thud last month at the international premiere of La belle et la bête at the 64th Berlinale Film Festival.

No, no, and no.

Director Christophe Gans delivers a plot-heavy film with little wit, energy, or magic. The special effects, which reportedly consumed a hefty share of the 35 million euro production budget, are too often superfluous and not that special. The leads display as much chemistry in their pairing as the Dish and the Spoon from Hey Diddle Diddle: The Nursery Rhyme.

The basics are covered. Dumb Dad plucks rose and is sentenced to death. Dutiful Daughter offers herself up as a tasty alternative. Hideous, yet horny Cursed Creature accepts the deal. Hilarity ensues. Yeah, not so much that last part.

Léa Seydoux is beautiful, but her beauty is icy and invulnerable and ill-suited to the role of Belle.  Vincent Cassel is creepier in human form when he romps through the back story than he is in the fussy make up which makes this Beast resemble the offspring of Chewbacca and a Pekingese pup.

Speaking of pups, the film contains a clumsy attempt at Disney cute by having the Beast’s castle inhabited by a pack of beagles that were converted by the same curse into um, um…bigger-eyed, longer-eared beagles? “They were to become my best friends,”  Belle says in voiceover. Her sharing this information with the audience is extremely helpful as the movie never shows it.

Yet, the biggest faux pasmon frère, is director Gans’ decision to divert time and attention to subplots involving Belle’s bumbling businessman father, her ne’er-do-well brothers, and a group of cutthroats who appear to have been cast for a different (and better) movie. Their sacking of the castle and the subsequent retribution meted out to them is almost as incongruous to the rest of the film as when the Western saloon brawl spills over into the Broadway musical in Blazing Saddles.

The narrative is framed as a bedtime story read by a mother to her two children. The visuals in the opening moments of the tale along with the reveal of the Beast’s story through a series of dreams contain a wonder and energy that underscores the mundaneness of much of the “real-time” events in the movie. By the time Mom puts down the book for an obvious epilogue, you know the kids won’t be asking for a repeat of this story any time soon.

One and a half stars.

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