Monday, February 17, 2014

Berlinale: La Belle Et La Bête Review

Monday, February 17, 2014

Directed by: Christophe Gans
Written by: Christophe Gans & Sandra Vo-Anh
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Lea Seydoux,
Running time: 112 minutes
Release date: TBA

In a quaint little house in the French countryside, a mother tells her children a bedtime story. In the familiar form fit for a film based on a fairy tale, our off-screen maternal narrator recalls the story of The Beauty and the Beast whilst the visuals and cinematography bring the words of her voice to life.
Cast aside, for a moment, your notions of tome-riddled libraries, old crones transforming into beautiful enchantresses and animated household objects. Enter instead scheming siblings, a golden deer and a lovable pack of animated, cartoon-like hounds. With themes only fleetingly similar to the well-known adapted Disney Classic, Christophe Gans's La Belle et la Bête steers closer to the original 1740 story written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve merged with some novel additions of its own.

After her father gets lost in an enchanted forest and is punished by a mysterious beast (Vincent Cassell) for stealing a rose, Belle (Léa Seydoux) takes his place as prisoner. She is introduced to a haunting place of magical isolation and, through her dreams and tenacious curiosity, works to piece together the details of the beast's past. This is not a story made up of goodies and baddies in absolute black and white. Naturally, some lie firmly in one camp or the other but supplementary characters, such as Belle's two sisters, are both vain and selfish, and her two older brothers make themselves victims of their own flaws. Belle herself does not act exactly in the manner of a typical fairy tale heroine i.e. all sweetness and light. Seydoux's Belle is a more somber than her predecessors, though with the same steadfast passion in her gut.

Gans centres the film around the allegory of the deep conflict that exists between the civilised and primordial forces. This is naturally most evident in the beast himself, whose presence we are initially teased with through partial close ups and fleeting reflections. When he is fully revealed to us, it is clear he has not entirely let go of his humanity - well groomed, smartly dressed, a voice not so gruff as you would expect; he strives to keep up pretenses. We experience the lavish world of civilisation through Belle's frequent costume changes, a swirling parade of opulent sartorial decadence. Everything is neatly wrapped up by fairy tale appropriate flourishes - imagery punctuated by music dark and foreboding or playful and trill as necessary, and softly blurred around the edges like a half-remembered dream. Visuals of the imposingly large and derelict castle, its ramparts and pillars strangled by roses, and the troupe of mystical character devices - a tarot reader, a god of nature, stone giants - lean towards Guillermo del Toro type allusions, if far less gothic.

Ultimately, the challenge here, as with all reboots, is to not do the same thing twice and to visit unexplored angles whilst not abandoning the story to complete unfamiliarity. Perhaps it is the idea of foreign lands and the unknown that makes something about fairy tale films seem all the more magical when they are relatively small budget foreign language films. For this reason, the decision to shoot in French does the film a major justice. But if the aim was to produce a version that could be a classic in its own right, this is not quite achieved as, even with its own mythical flourishes, it doesn't have enough of a unique punch to elevate it to such status.That being said, taken as it is, we are left with an overall enjoyable reimagining of Belle and her beloved Beast, entwining threads of imaginative artistry to conjure a worthy world of enchantment.

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