Disney dearly hopes you will not see this French adaptation of the fairy definitively penned by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, because just about any competitive live action film will suffer in comparison. Of course, there is already the Jean Cocteau masterpiece and Disney’s own exceptional animated feature. However, for pure visual spectacle, it will be hard to equal Christophe Gans’ Beauty and the Beast (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.
The story is still a fairy tale, suitable for a mother to tell as a bedtime story for her two rapt children in the film’s framing device. Belle is also still the beauty and consequently the apple of her merchant father’s eye. Sadly, all of the old man’s ships are lost at sea, forcing his family into provincial poverty. Yet, clean country living agrees with Belle (but not so much with her five entitled siblings).
Returning home from an ill-fated attempt to recoup his fortune, the merchant takes shelter in an ominous castle. He eats well before helping himself to some luxurious gifts for his shallow older daughters and finally a rose for Belle—the only gift she requested. His unseen host takes exception to this. That would be the Beast. As punishment for his desecration, the beast sentences the merchant to death, giving him one final day to make his farewells. However, the noble Belle returns in his place before the distraught father can stop her.
Of course, the Beast is not about to kill such a fair maiden. Instead, he provides some lovely gowns for her to wear at their awkward formal dinners. Viewers basically know where things go from here, but instead of the arrogant Gaston, it will be Perducas, her wastrel brother’s cutthroat underworld creditor, who will come barging in uninvited.
This time around, we also get more of the Beast’s backstory, which surprisingly pay-offs with third act call-backs. It is a richly archetypal narrative, but Belle’s love for the Beast blossoms way faster than Gans and co-screenwriter Sandra Vo-Anh duly establish. Of course, we know it will happen, so apparently they decided to let us fill in the blanks.
Regardless, this Beauty and the Beast is a majestic triumph of vision and art direction. The sets, trappings, and costumes are wonderfully lush and detailed. Although the vibe is suitably gothic, there is a touch of Dali in production designer Thierry Flamand’s work, especially when it comes to the giant statues. The visual effects are also first rate, as when those giant statues attack.
Vincent Cassel is appropriately fierce and feral as the beast, while Léa Seydoux scratches out some direct and engaging emotional moments, which is a challenge for a little miss perfect like Belle. The venerable André Dussollier does his thing once again, further classing up the joint as the merchant. However, Eduardo Noriega nearly steals the show masticating the scenery with villainous glee as Perducas. He also nicely plays with and off Myriam Charleins as Perducas’ mysterious tarot-reading lover and co-conspirator.