I arrived at this week’s pick in a very roundabout way.
I wanted to give this review some European flavor. Something outside the Asian action movie sphere this feature has predominantly featured. From time to time, I’m in the mood for something with more class and refinement. Perhaps a period piece set in the French Revolution, an enlightened era where men were sensible enough to wear jaunty tri-cornered hats unironically. I had included one on my long term list: a historical action horror film directed by Cristophe Gans starring a knight and Native American friend. Fighting werewolves. With kung fu. And Mark Dacascos, mixed-race American martial arts champion who most of you know for tormenting potential Food Network stars on Iron Chef America.
Alas, 2001’s Brotherhood of the Wolf was not available on any of my streaming services. So no werewolves, Monica Bellucci, or Mark Dacascos. The rest of Gans’ filmography includes movies like Silent Hill and a live-action adaptation of Japanese manga Crying Freeman. Honestly, I’m shocked that this is the first time I’ve heard of the latter’s existence, especially since it also stars Mark Dacascos. One of these days, I might just switch over to reviewing live-action adaptations of manga and anime.
Instead, I decided to pick Gans’ most recent film: a French-German production based on a little-known fairy tale called Beauty and the Beast.
So can we expect the Beast to hit a sentient clock with a flying dropkick? Sadly, that thought didn’t cross my mind. Given that this is partially a French adaptation of a French fairy tale, I — in my ethnocentric ignorance — expected this movie to be more faithful to the original. More faithful than the Disney version, certainly! My odds were on an adaptation that hewed closer to the Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve story written in 1740.
Belle (played by Lea Seydoux) has two sisters and three brothers, as it was in the original tale. Belle’s father is a merchant, and the family fortune is lost when their ships are lost at sea. The family must relocate to a farmhouse where they are forced to do hard labor. The very practical Belle excels at it, and she plants a garden out front. Her two sisters cannot adjust to life without luxury. It should be pointed out that they’re portrayed less harshly here than in some other versions of the story. While they whine and complain, they’re not overly cruel toward Belle. Isn’t there a version of the story where they’re frozen into statues for being jerkasses?
Two of Belle’s brothers are awful guys… the third being a generic writer dude. One of them is involved in a swindle that brings in the movie’s stand-in for Disney’s Gaston: the sneering, merciless Perducas (Eduardo Noriega). He is not a rival for Belle’s heart (and is pretty ignorant of her existence for most of the movie), but rather a rival for antiquities stored up in supposedly abandoned castles.
Perducas, like his predecessor Gaston, wasn’t in the original tale, and seems to be included because you need a villain and obviously The Beast isn’t going to be the main antagonist for the entire story. For the most part, though, it seems like we’re going to adhere to most of the story beats. Belle’s dad accidentally plucks a rose. Belle takes his place. And she and the Beast must fall in love the break the curse. It’s a tale as old as time. I was ready to praise this movie and go, “Leave it to the French to make a great adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, while Disney is once again rehashing the same tired old elements and sanitizing everything for the children.”
But then everyone gets attacked by 100-foot stone golems and my whole original premise goes to hell.
How do fairy tale movies even get to this point? Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer ends the same way, where Jack and friends are involved in a battle royale against an army of giants. The Johnny Depp Alice In Wonderland movie ends in a similar war where the forces of the Red Queen and the White Queen do battle while Alice slays a dragon. Just like the Lewis Carroll books! Then there are the likes of Snow White and The Huntsman and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Who do I blame for this bizarre trend of the early 2010’s? The Lord of the Rings? Movie producers who insist that there be another Lord of the Rings? Dumb audiences who want to see Jack, Alice, Snow White, Hansel & Gretel, and Belle involved in brutal fantasy combat scenarios?
As with a lot of things, I’m just going to go ahead and blame, Shrek. Besides, maybe I’m too hard on the movie. Perhaps Barbot always intended her children’s story to include monstrous stone defenders who come to life to stomp on opportunistic treasure hunters.
Vincent Cassel plays The Beast, an arrogant prince who uses antlers in all his decorating. (Weirdly, he does seem to be Gaston in pre-curse form.) He’s unable to stop his addiction to hunting. In particular, he has this unquenchable urge to slay a golden deer that flits about his lands. This particular story element felt eerily familiar, and I’m sure I’d encountered it somewhere. I wasn’t sure if I’d read it in a version of Beauty and the Beast, or if it was from another fairy tale or Greek myth or anime. Our prince eventually corners his prey one day, and it turns out that the golden deer was a beautiful dryad! This killing angers the nature god (who is the dryad’s father), and he curses The Prince with the form of a hairy, leonine creature.
If you can’t tell from the pictures here… yeah, he looks an awful lot like Disney’s Beast. The one that showed up in the recent movie, especially. Now, supposedly the original fairy tale Beast was based on a portrait of Petrus Gonsalvus. It’s possible that designers on both productions were inspired by the same hirsute gentleman, arriving at the same depiction independently.
But I doubt it.
Gans is not above sneaking a few moves out of Disney’s playbook. Did you love the scene from the 1991 animated movie where Belle and The Beast dance? Hey, Lea Seydoux and Vince Cassel Have you covered. You can almost hear Angela Lansbury’s voice as they waltz around the empty ballroom.
This movie even out-Disney’s Disney! It’s almost a given that the heroine has to have adorable (i.e. marketable) sidekicks. The recent Moana even makes fun of that conceit. So you can expect a cute little teacup that didn’t exist in the original to be added to the story. Gans seems to have said, “Pfah. Teacups? You can’t make plushies out of those. What if, instead, we increase the huggablility and have puppies… with enormous anime eyes!” And so our Belle is surrounded by a litter of these sentient Funko Pops called “tadommes”, who are theoretically adorable. Somehow, the living furniture felt more like a spiritually truthful adaptation.
You can forgive a lot of these odd quirks, honestly, if not for the movie’s biggest misstep. You can add stone giants, you can add anime puppies, you could turn the Beast into a sexy bald dude with vine-like face tats played by Alex Pettyfer whose name is an anagram for “ex-pretty leaf.” However, if the central “beauty and the beast” relationship falls apart, then you have no movie. There is zero chemistry between Seydoux and Cassel. Throughout the film, The Beast asks her, “Could you ever love me?” (Changed from “Could you marry me?”, the original version’s more tradition-bound curse breaker.) Belle cannot. You know that eventually Belle is going to cave and break the curse.
Here’s the thing, though: I didn’t buy it for one second.
With the Disney version, you had no problem believing that The Beast had a good heart underneath his fearsome appearance. There is never the same feeling with Cassel’s Beast. He’s arrogant, cruel, and unlikable. This is a good starting place for a soulful transformation, where he must soften in order to be worthy of Belle. Yet he never softens. He only gives gifts and expects Belle to return the gratitude. He is the poster boy of male privilege.
Even the Beast of the original fairy tale never seemed this retrograde. He at least trusted Belle with his heart, and his nearly fatal heartbreak over her leaving him and breaking her promise to return was genuine. It’s a personality trait that has enchanted readers for almost 300 years! Cassel’s Beast, on the other hand, is too much of a man to suffer anything as undignified as heartache. He can only prove his love to Belle the only way he knows how: by sending out a bunch of stone giants to stomp on some home invaders. Yeah! Heartache is for girly men! Like the ethos of a certain man who eats five dozen eggs every morning to help him get large, macho bravado is what women want!
And you know… it turns out that the Beast wasn’t wrong. After his display of brute force, the Beast asks Belle one last time if she could ever love him. She says she already did, the curse is broken, and Vince Cassel becomes the only Beast who looks more handsome in human form than in the bestial one. So basically The Beast wasn’t wrong in acting like Gaston at all. In fact, it saved the day.
And they lived happily ever after.
Beauty and the Beast (as well as the other Beauty and the Beast) is available on Netflix.
NEXT: An autistic man stays in elementary school for far too long in the Indian blockbuster, Koi… Mil Gaya.