Spirited, aptly named Belle (Léa Seydoux) tries to keep her family happy when their beloved father (André Dussollier) faces financial ruin. In the wake of another failed venture the poor old man ends up fleeing a pack of ruffians led by the odious Perducas (Eduardo Noriega), to whom his feckless son owes money. Seeking refuge in the forest he stumbles upon an enchanted castle with a banquet table laden with extravagant food and caskets of treasure to which he foolishly helps himself along with an uncommonly beautiful rose as a gift for his precious daughter. Whereupon the lord of the castle, a monstrous Beast (Vincent Cassel) threatens to kill the old man unless he parts with the one thing he loves most. Upon learning of her father's plight, Belle courageously delivers herself to the Beast which proves only the first chapter in an uplifting, redemptive love story.
First published in 1794 by French author Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve then rewritten by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont into the most commonly known, abridged version of the story, Beauty and the Beast has of course been adapted for the screen countless times, most notably as the much beloved Disney animated musical in 1991. Yet in its country of origin all other adaptations pale before the spellbinding poetry of Jean Cocteau's seminal La Belle et la Bête (1946) which is to fairytale cinema what Citizen Kane (1941) is to drama. So no small amount of trepidation greeted news that writer-director Christophe Gans would pair Gallic superstar Vincent Cassel with Léa Seydoux, the current It-girl of French cinema, in a multi-million euro CGI remake as France's entry in the global live action fairytale craze: e.g. Maleficent (2014), Jack the Giant Slayer (2013), Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), Red Riding Hood (2012) and The Monkey King (2014).
Having started out as editor of influential French genre movie magazine Starfix, Gans segued into film-making with a segment in the H.P. Lovecraft-themed horror anthology Necronomicon (1993). His stylish but hollow manga adaptation Crying Freeman (1995) was disappointing but audacious historical drama/martial arts/monster movie mash-up Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) proved inspired and entertaining enough to establish him as an idiosyncratic talent capable of genius. Gans' keen understanding of the guiding principles of world fantasy cinema proves the key ingredient in this twenty-first century take on Beauty and the Beast which is neither reboot nor revisionist but simply an eloquent revival of a timeless tale seen through modern eyes. It is through this delicate balancing act where Gans, his cast and production team succeed marvellously where so many others fail. We open as a mother lovingly reads from a storybook to her wide-eyed son and daughter. These children serve as stand-ins for the viewer as Gans rekindles the simple pleasures of cinema. Thereafter though he imbues the oft-told tale with an entirely state-of-the-art epic sweep that yields a feast for the eyes, he never allows all its digital trickery to stifle the soul of the story.
Opting out of aping Hollywood bombast, La Belle et la Bete 2014 retains an emphasis on lyricism and romance in a manner that does Jean Cocteau proud. It is foremost a love story, staying true to the original fairytale that remains a cleverly conceived allegory for relations between the sexes. Both Villeneuve and Beaumont's versions celebrate the power of women able to look beyond the beastly surface to perceive and eventually draw forth the man inside. At the same time the Beast goes from barking orders at Belle, trying to bribe her with riches or smooth talk to discovering that all it takes, to paraphrase Otis Redding, is a little tenderness. Unlike the Disney version, Gans adheres to the classic structure which for some modern tastes might seem to dawdle before getting to the meat of the story. Yet it is admirable that he takes time to establish the plight of Belle's father (indeed André Dussollier shoulders the first half of the story with an affecting performance) and the heroine's strength of character. An achingly lovely Léa Seydoux, who really does grow more beautiful as the plot progresses, offers a spirited modern fairytale heroine without looking like an anachronism. Which is a tricky thing to do. You really believe this young woman would crawl bleeding through a forest of thorns to save her one true love.
Whereas most versions relegate the Beast's back-story to a pre-credits prologue, here Gans and co-screenwriter Sandra Vo-Anh scatter flashbacks throughout as a series of magical dreams enable Belle to play detective and piece together his tortured past including an ingenious, heartrending twist that really heightens the tragedy and allows Vincent Cassel to appear onscreen sans his CGI makeover. Gans teases us at first with sporadic glimpses of the leonine beast, building an aura of menace before unveiling a suitably bestial yet restrained, emotive and engaging creation, which is as it should be. Sumptuous set design and special effects impart a suitably otherworldly ambiance upon the Beast's enchanted castle (costumes by Pierre-Yves Gayraud are equally ravishing) which includes nods to Cocteau but also modern magicians like Tim Burton and Hayao Miyazaki as stone giants erupt from the undergrowth and cute little puppy-like critters called Tadami roam the halls. Action is restrained for the most part although Gans stages some striking sequences - notably Belle's fall through a frozen lake - before cutting loose with the climactic siege that yields the most spectacular set-piece. Cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne serves up a warm, beguiling colour palette that like the storybook romance itself is just lovely.
French director with a talent for stylish martial arts/fantasy film-making. As a journalist in the 1980s Gans founded the influential cult movie magazine Starfix, and made his debut in 1994 by contributing to Necromonicon, Brian Yuzna's horror anthology film. Crying Freeman was an above-average live action version of the popular manga, while the genre-straddling Brotherhood of the Wolf was one of 2001's biggest international hits. Game adaptation Silent Hill was a disappointment, but his retelling of La Belle et la Bete satisfied his fans.