Monday, June 19, 2017

Christophe Gans' Beauty and the Beast Film

I'm thrilled that Christophe Gans' Beauty and the Beast, starring Vincent Cassel and Lea Seydeux, is available on Netflix, since that's basically my only source of entertainment. I had really been looking forward to seeing this version of my favorite fairy tale.

To be fair, I wasn't able to sit down and enjoy the whole film in one go, or purely focus on it, but catch bits and pieces over a week and jot down notes in between. It's nice to see a retelling of the traditional French version, but with clear nods to Cocteau and Disney. But overall, I would say this film is worth watching for the visuals, but has an incredibly disappointing romance.

One thing I appreciated in this film, compared to other versions, was more realistic sibling relationships: I would love to read/see a version of BATB someday that really explores the relationship between Beauty and her sisters more. The traditional fairy tales has them painted extremely black and white; the sisters ugly and evil and Beauty beautiful and often annoyingly perfect. There's so much potential character depth that could be explored from their reactions to losing their wealth, and a lifetime of your younger sister being your father's favorite (not to mention obviously prettier than you). On the other extreme, there's the Robin McKinley novels, which I adore-but in those the sisters are all a little too perfect; neither they nor Beauty has any real flaws. The Gans version tended to be on the traditional fairy tale side, but you do get a sense of pity for the sisters as their neighbors laugh at their disgrace in their poverty, and when their father comes back from the Beast one of them says "this is all our fault," taking ownership rather than blaming Belle. Belle is more human-she admits she sulks when she finds out her father is going to recover his ship, and the request for a rose isn't made in the "I just want my father to be safe because I'm perfect but to make everyone feel better I'll make a super simple request" way, but as a kind of protest.

Then when Belle returns home, we feel sympathy for the sisters again, for how much worse their life has gotten because of their brother's debts. They aren't spiteful to Belle at all, in fact the brothers' storyline provides an interesting twist in why she didn't return to the castle as intended-and the sisters are honestly glad to see their father doing better.
The Romance (or lack thereof) (warning, spoilers ahead:) But then we come to the introduction of the Beast. I find it interesting that the filmmakers, while working primarily from the classic French Villeneuve/Beaumont tale, chose to keep the "angry selfish" Beast made so popular by Disney and not the gentlemanly Beast who wants Belle to be as happy as possible in the castle. Especially given that Disney's tale has been mostly criticized for its Stockholm Syndrome similarities, and that since then our culture has been obsessed with other troublingly abusive relationships (50 Shades of Gray comes to mind), I would expect a heightened sensitivity to the character of the Beast, and avoiding those pitfalls. Yet I find this Beast to be far worse than the Disney (and when I refer to the Disney Beast I mean the 1991 cartoon, still haven't seen the live remake, although I've read all the fairy tale bloggers' reviews and am somewhat familiar with the major changes). 
So he starts out creepy and cruel, which most people have grown to expect from the Beast. Maybe they figure it's better cinema to get you scared at first, so the romance is more dramatic later on. To be fair, the Beast does apologize the next night, although he doesn't say what for (and there is so much...it implies he's only sorry for jumping on the table, not necessarily for, say, imprisoning her for life and cruelly telling her to forget her family because there's no chance she can ever escape). 

Then Beauty makes a deal with the Beast, she'll dance with him if he allows her to visit her family again. And all of a sudden she's resting her head on his chest (an homage to the Disney ballroom scene?) and it seems she has affection for him, based on...what?? It seems not only unwarranted but way too sudden. 

In the Disney, Belle shows no hint of affection for the Beast at all for a long time. The first turning point is when she tries to escape, and the Beast gets hurt protecting her from the wolves. This is the first time that he actually sacrifices something for her. She makes the decision to return and take care of him, fulfilling the promise she made to stay there in place of her father, but still no hint of romance-she thanks him for saving her life and that begins a montage indicating that a long span of time is spent getting to know each other, playing together (snowball fights), reading, and the Beast really trying to be better-relearning to eat with silverware, giving her the library, etc. Only after this, in the famous ballroom scene, does she lean her head on his chest and indicate the least bit of attraction to him.
The Gans sort of has a scene similar to the wolf scene, where Belle attempts to run away, only the Beast doesn't run after to protect her, but catches her. She falls down backwards on the ice, and after he attempts to kiss her, she falls into the ice. Then, after she's back safe and dry in the castle, he says she can go home, and all of a sudden she seems flirty and playful with him-as if he wasn't merely keeping the promise that she herself bargained for. It was hardly the act of selflessness that the Disney Beast shows when he lets her go, permanently, expecting to never see her again and therefore remain a Beast. 

Along with that, the Disney Beast's backstory, although it has holes, indicates that his selfishness, although inexcusable, stems from him being a young, spoiled Prince. This Beast's backstory, while interesting, is really more troubling than anything else. What was the purpose of revealing the backstory? Usually it's to make the Beast more sympathetic/human, but he just seems like he's always been a jerk. He had more interest in hunting than spending time with his wife, and broke his promise to stop hunting the Golden Deer. You might think he would have learned his lesson, and become more sensitive to his partner's needs, but the opposite happened. Plus, the fact that he's older and previously married, compared to Belle's situation-has only lived under her father's house, and to all appearances has never dated before, just makes their relationship seem more unbalanced and disturbing. Not that relationships like that can't work, but they require a lot of intentional communication as you work through what would be a lot of baggage. 
I kept expecting the relationship to continue and show the Beast growing and changing, like in the Disney, but Belle's return to her family is so abrupt (after only...2 days?) and somehow on her return, her one wish is to be with him again. It's so out of the blue. 

To be fair, the Beast has a few (minor) redeeming qualities. When he lets her go, even though he's just keeping his word, this shows growth because he broke his promise to his first wife. He sends Belle with the healing water, and later stops the giant statues from killing her and her brothers (which also means...that he and the stone statues were stomping on a bunch of people like bugs, for looting the castle. The thieves were jerks but that doesn't excuse murder. Or at least I'm assuming people died? It looked like it but was hard to tell and didn't seem like there were that many people to begin with). Still, that's hardly enough to warrant trust and a confession of love, which is what happens next. 
I don't agree with everything in this review from Indiewire (clearly I enjoyed the introduction), but this excerpt seems pretty accurate: "The love-crossed pair at the heart of the story share little screen time, and the precious few moments they do occupy even a frame together are marked by a decided lack of chemistry and mostly screamed threats from the Beast that often verge into territory that has the unnerving undertones of sexual assault. At the very least, the Beast is mostly intent on capturing Belle’s heart (or maybe just her body) by alternately threatening her with physical (and sexual) harm and greasing the wheels with some jewel-covered gifts and impressive gowns"

In fact the whole relationship was so baffling to me I was even wondering if somehow it was supposed to be exaggerating to make a point, sort of like how Cocteau meant for his ending to be disappointing, but it doesn't seem like this was the intent. Who else has seen this movie? What did you think?

18 comments:

  1. None of the English reviews I read mentioned the tiny cute creatures that are meant to lighten up the mood (I forgot her name), which makes me wonder if they were cut from the English version. To be honest that would probably be for the better as they add nothing to movie. Neither do they add anything to the main characters nor provide enough comic relief to turn it into a comedy or kids movie.

    There's definitely a scene where a man gets *violently* trampled to death by one of the stone giants, which is such a jarring and sudden tone shift.

    I liked what they did with the family, but it came at cost of the actual Beauty and the Beast story, i.e. the romance. I wonder what they could have done to strike a better balance, perhaps severely cut down on the backstory. I got the feeling the backstory was used as a tool to get Belle to fall in love with the Beast. For example in the ballroom scene, it was implied she was imagining/hallucinating about dancing with the man from her dreams. Though that element is from the actual story, it wasn't used properly. First of all the prince in the backstory is not likeable enough to make her fall heads over heels for him. Secondly in the book the dream prince is almost a rival lovver that competes with the beast, in the film I think they TRIEd tomake it so she suspects that the prince and the Beast are one and the same earlier, but it's not made clear enough, which makes her romance with the Beast come off as unmotivated.

    As for the backstory, I didn't find the prince as unlikeable as you did. He was a bit selfish and a bit immature, but nothing that is out of the ordinary. His relationship with his wife was far from perfect, but it wasn't awful either. If anything the punishment he received was unfar, because, if I recall right, he eas punished not for going against his wive's will, but for killing animals, which is something most people in this time period did. However you're right about his character development: Listening to other and respecting their wishes is something he should have learned from this backstory, but he apparently did not. The backstory was a beautiful fairy tale in and of itself, but - like the cute critters - it did not fit into the movie they were making.

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    1. Oh yeah the little puppy friends...the Tadums maybe? They were definitely there, but even though I'm hardly a CGI critic, they were really distracting because of how they didn't seem to fit in visually with the rest of the movie.

      I was actually thinking at one point that kindness to other animals/all life would be one of the themes, but there was meat in the palace, both in the table laid out for the father, and then that scene where the Beast is eating an animal he killed, so clearly he didn't learn that lesson either.

      It's not that I expected the Prince to be perfect in the backstory, but to have some more redeeming qualities...as you said, his character wasn't enough to somehow undo the never addressed abuse or inspire her level of love for him.

      Yeah I wish the dream sequences could have been used better. I always thought it was weird in the Villeneuve that she thought the Dream Prince and the Beast were two different people so it would be nice to see that element from the story done differently.

      It seems that if you want to give Belle and the Beast each a backstory, and really develop both their characters and have a satisfying romance, it's too much to do in one movie. It needs to be a television show or something

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  2. I saw this movie a while ago with high expectations, and agree that it's unfortunately a bad film. I didn't even like the visuals; I found the film to be visually too busy and 'computery'-looking. The subplots seemed pretty pointless; for example, the robbery/stone giants one made it seem as though they wanted to add an action element to broaden the film's potential audience, rather than to make a thematically or tonally consistent movie. As pointed out in the comments above, the CGI dog-things may have been another ill-conceived attempt to appeal to yet another audience segment. And as explained in the post, the central relationship was poorly done, so why did they bother.

    By the way, it's been a while so I might have just missed the obvious when I watched the film, but perhaps somebody else who remembers the film better can assist: (SPOILERS) at the very end of the film, we return to the framing story in which Lea Seydeux's character finishes narrating the tale to (presumably) her children. She then joins Vincent Cassel's character outside and they kiss. It looked to me as though they were at a small farm homestead in that scene, possibly Belle's old home, rather than at the castle. So... did the Prince and Belle give up the castle for the simple life? Or, are their characters in the framing story actually different people to the Beast and Belle whom we've been watching, and Lea's 'framing' character was just telling her children a fantastical story?

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    1. Yeah the action sequence seems out of place and random. You want there to be some kind of consequence for the thieves, but not something so grotesque that also means the Beast is a murderer...

      That's a really interesting idea and I actually kind of prefer that. It could make sense that they would leave the castle where the Beast has memories of his first wife, and Belle seemed to genuinely enjoy farming. There's also the shot of her father, but it could be that the children would naturally imagine their own parents/grandfather as the main characters in the story.

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  3. I seem to disagree with the majority of American (and other English-as-the-main-language) reviewers, but share sentiments with a lot of foreign ones, leading me to believe I just view things very differently. It is interesting that I see the story completely differently. I can't see the Disney versions for anything else but a problem, to a very large extent, but I also have very little patience for the romantic scenes people seem to want - when a beast is involved - too. To me, the way romance is portrayed in the US is unrealistic and completely unbalanced (and plays very much into patriarchal notions of relationships). It's sweet and soft and that feels at odds with any relationship involving a 'beast' to me. I think it must be a cultural thing. (Although I'm Australian, my formative years were spent in Latin America and strong and feisty females were core to a good story and, in love stories, a successful relationship.) (continued...)

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    1. (continued...)
      The main difference to me in this movie is that Belle is very independent - you could even say headstrong, even foolishly so at points. She gives pretty much every other character, no choice but to react to her actions. She sets the tone, takes charge, brings change - for better or worse. Although she doesn't act smartly the entire time (would you?) one thing she's not is passive. The beast in this film is also clearly mostly a beast at the beginning. They take pains to show this with his eating - making it clear he's not truly human. His view of the world is very different. (And his difference is contrasted with the human monsters later on, who truly are monstrous, going against even nature's brutal survival laws to be vindictive, selfish and even murderous.) Belle's initially expecting a monster and ready to fight against it/be devoured by one, but realizes there is more going on with this 'beast'. Ultimately, through being nosy, defiant, challenging and keeping all the characters off balance, she finds out the beast's backstory and gets to the heart of things, essentially deciding to free him once he's done a bit of sacrificing of his own (and not in a man-pain sense). Their interactions have a lot more going on in the subtext and the director doesn't take the time to explain it all, which I appreciate. There isn't the romance of sweetness, but there's fire, relational tension and possessiveness, and in this she matches the beast. (This Belle shows her similarities to the beast, which I find refreshing and set them up to eventually be a good match.) It seems a more real portrayal of a relationship that comes filled with complicated issues (and baggage) than any sweet romance could handle. I see this earthiness of sexual emotion in other foreign films too, so I've been putting it down to being a cultural difference. I do find it interesting that a number of children I've known (different families) who have seen this, found it thrilling though, and not at all confusing. They loved how feisty and independent (and brave) Belle was and how she continually stood up to the Beast and challenged him - all the way to the end. They loved how Belle and the garden both rose up to defend the beast and they saw a fulfilling future for the couple (unlike the Disney couple's future which raised a lot of questions).
      I will leave it there as I know most in this circle don't share my views, and many probably won't agree with any of this either, but despite not being a perfect film, (and being overly lavish at times with strange weird dog-beings added) I prefer this earthy and headstrong (and flawed) Belle, and this relationship - with all it's issues - that seems like it will last the test of time, to either of the Disney offerings.
      PS And yes - I think the framing aspect to the story take it purposeful with Belle telling the 'fairy tale' to her children. (Note she questions them a couple of times on how she is telling them the story so check in on them.) The real happy ending is a normal life, connected to land and family - not that Belle has become a princess and lives in a castle. I have to say, I prefer this ending too.

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    3. Man I would love to have an in person discussion with you about this someday! Fascinating how we all approach it so differently, and I wouldn't have expected culture to factor in so hugely. I do love reading more of your reasons (I was expecting to like it more based on your review, since I feel like we usually see more eye to eye on things!). It seems you focus on the female character and her journey whereas Americans are more focused on the Beast? Correct me if I'm putting words in your mouth...

      I like a romance that emphasizes loving someone for their character/personality over looks, which is partly why I'm drawn to BATB tales, although it is imbalanced that there are so few female Beasts out there. I love a strong, fiesty heroine too (although I also think Disney's Belle is pretty headstrong and brave too) although, being a shy and cautious person myself I sometimes wish we could see different female personalities representing different kinds of strength...

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  4. I never realized that when I saw the new French version. Hmm. But now that I think about it, its no wonder I some of my fairy tale retellings (I'm an aspiring writer) make some changes while still remaining true to the older, Pre-Disney/Charles Perrault variations.

    In my retelling of Beauty and the Beast (which mainly draws inspiration from East to the Sun/West to the Moon and some modern versions), the Beauty, Catherine, is a typical gentle shepherdess but she has a personality flaw with her holier-than-thou attitude. She was sent to a Convent school at a young age and grew a bit smug in her gentleness. Her family are not very nice or functional; Father is a bumbling sheep farmer, Mother is a nagging laundress, older Sister is an arrogant barmaid obsessed with vanity, and older Brother is an idle wastrel who does nothing but sleep and eat. They are a greedy family who are put off by Catherine's holier-than-thou behavior, but she is well liked by the villagers for her piety, intelligence and beauty, which draws the attention of two prominent members; Ichabod the snobbish schoolmaster, and Abram the macho Blacksmith. When Catherine is tending the sheep, one lamb strays away deep into the woods gets attacked by wolves. A great lion rescues Catherine and her flock and he safely takes her home. She asks what can she give him in return,and she swears this by her word that she will give it to him, and the lion asks that she would be his wife. Catherine begged in tears to not marry him, but she will not break her word and so she marries him. The lion takes her to a castle filled with animal servants. On the wedding night, as the Lion enters the bed, Catherine takes a knife out but is astounded to see that the Lion sheds his skin, revealing himself to be a handsome man, named Petrus. Petrus explains to Catherine that he was cursed by his stepsister, a megalomaniacal witch, because he refused to marry her, and the curse can only be broken by loyal love. Catherine and Petrus grew to love each, and the animal servants (also cursed by the witch) praise her as their mistress and lady. When Catherine's family visit, she isn't allowed to tell them the Lion's secret, but she tells them how kind the Lion is. When the subject came up on her married life, the family are deeply disturbed at the notion that Catherine is committing bestiality (that and they also envy Catherine's wealthy life). Catherine is still moral-than-thou in her ways and she kicks her family out. Catherine also befriends a black cormorant bird, who she confides in and the bird tells her a secret into ending the curse sooner, by throwing Petrus's lion skin into the flames. Catherine is conflicted about this, as Petrus said that only Catherine's loyal love can break the spell until the next full moon, but she had no time to think as her family and the villagers storm the castle. Catherine, desperate to rescue her husband, throws the lion skin into the flames, only to hear Petrus screaming in agony and burning up. The Black Cormorant flies by him and reveals herself to be the Stepsister Witch, she tricked Catherine, and because Catherine failed to help break the curse, the Stepsister takes Petrus, the servants and the treasures away, leaving Catherine alone in a meadow. The rest is Catherine's Redemption Quest to reclaim her husband to atone for her betrayal and her holier-than-thou ways.

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    1. Wow! I love the mixture of the Villeneuve family dynamics with the nod to Petrus and Catherine Gonsalvus and the plot of an Animal Bridegroom tale. Also the character of Catherine-pride seems like a very natural thing to come out of being favored as she is in the traditional fairy tale, and the characterization seems very organic.

      I've had ideas for my own BATB swimming around in my head for years, but other than the siblings having a more complex relationship the rest is basically not that different than Robin McKinley's "Beauty" so I'm sure nothing will come of it. Plus I'm not that talented at writing fiction.

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  5. Thanks so much for this review, Kristin, and for sparking this fascinating discussion! As a movie critic, I've been waiting for this movie for 3 years! But now that it's out on Netflix, there goes my chance to see it on a big screen. As a novelist, who's spent the last 2 years working with my editor on my own BATB-inspired tale (due out — finally! — in Spring, 2018), I'm delighted to see how much interest there continues to be in any version of this story. Your commentators are very illuminating. I love Gypsy Thornton's take on subtext and realtional tension. And much of Nectar Vam's story reminds me of the Cupid and Psyche Greek myth, often cited as one of the earliest inspirations for the BATB tale. My book was written for an adult audience, but a YA editor fell in love with it. So I went through a very interesting educational experience of recalibrating many of the darker issues mentioned here for a YA (Young Adult) readership. But there's a twist: in my version, my heroine (who is not Beauty) gradually falls in love with Beast as he is. (With good reason: I hope!)When my Beauty character comes along, with the power to change Beast back into the handsome (but much more selfish and cruel) prince, my heroine will do anything to stop it. Meanwhile, I still hope to actually see this movie some day!

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    1. Yours sounds exciting and interesting.

      Actually, some say that the oldest concept of the Beauty and Beast trope goes to an example in the Epic of Gilgamesh, with Shamhat (a beautiful temple harlot) and Enkidu (the wild man sent to kill Gilgamesh). Enkidu in his feral state, falls for Shamhat, she seduces him for 7 days and she then educates him in the ways of civilization.

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    3. Cupid and Psyche is one of my favorite Greek myths, as I see it as one of the earliest BATB examples, and a very sensual one at that.

      Though Psyche has traditional jealous sisters common in several BATB tales, one feminist writer, Valerie Estelle Frankel, in her book 'From Girl to Goddess' she interprets the sisters' envy of Psyche as subconsciously warning her of her invisible lover, telling her "he never lets you visit friends or let you out of the house? We may not have grand houses like yours, but we are still mistresses in our own homes" and Psyche, childishly interprets this warning as jealousy.

      Valerie goes on to explain that while the women in BATB(like) tales secretly desire the Beast (representing passion and desire), she cannot just have the Beast alone, she needs the Prince Charming as well (who represents civility). She can not rely on the Beast alone, and she might end up having beastly children. She has to be the Beast's equal, not his naive seducee or kept mistress.

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    4. So great to hear all these different ideas for the BATB story! I love the twist of having the heroine different than the Beauty. And loving the Beast for who he is, since the whole idea of being rewarded for supposedly loving the Beast as he is by having him transformed into a handsome Prince is pretty ironic.

      But Nectar Vam, as you point out, the whole idea of beastliness/only able to be with him at night can be seen in so many different lights too. I hadn't even heard/thought of the concept that she's really more like a mistress than a wife without the spell being broken. Even though she's "punished" for looking she's really getting herself a much better situation. And in most of those Animal Bridegroom stories, she does have to later get rid of a rival wife so that interpretation actually makes a lot of sense now that I think of it...

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  6. That's the part of the tale I never liked, Kristin: if Beauty falls in love with Beast, why is it a "reward" when Beast is replaced by the Prince? Another reason I wanted my heroine not to be the Beauty character was to sidestep the issue of prisoner/victim falling for her captor that Nectar raises. In the Cupid & Psyche story (which I also adore), there is no actual monstrosity (beastliness), only the fear of monstrosity because she's not allowed to see her lover in the daylight. I also agree with Nectar about the duality of the Beast/Prince character. Although in my version, Beast is much more human and civilized in nature and behavior, even though he lacks a beautiful human face.

    I hadn't heard about the story from Gilgamesh as a precursor to BATB. I'll have to check it out!

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  7. I remember watching this! But I saw it in French, so I had no idea what anyone was saying. What was going on with the little dog things?

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    1. If you have a Netflix account, (or friends/family who do and will watch it with you,) you can see it either with subtitles or with the original actors speaking the lines in English!

      The puppies are the cute little sidekicks that Belle has as her "friends" in the castle. The Villeneuve version has monkey servants, although I feel like that serves to illustrate how wealthy yet magical the castle is. Although they weren't done particularly well, I think they did serve to round out Belle's character-the fact that she is kind to them, and even thinks of others, when she could so easily be consumed with her own bitterness/anger at her situation, reveals that she has a soft and compassionate side. And the little doll they make for her shows up in the epilogue (I had forgotten about this when I first responded to razorfriend above, wondering if the story actually happened or not) so it functions to show that it all really happened.

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