It’s a tale as old as time: One studio announces a project based on a well-known (and preferably public domain) property and others pile on, jockeying for a piece of the action. So it is that Disney’s highly anticipated live-action Beauty and the Beast, due out this week, has been beaten to the punch by a French version of the same Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont story, albeit one that came out three years ago. It just landed on video here, though — courtesy of the good folks at Shout! Factory — so clearly the thinking is that some viewers either won’t know the difference or won’t care that there aren’t any singing teapots.
Co-written and directed by Christophe Gans, whose Brotherhood of the Wolf left me dissatisfied when it showed up Stateside in 2002 (mostly because it was not, as I had hoped, about werewolves), this Beauty and the Beast is closer in spirit to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 fantasy than it is to Disney’s animated musical, a comparison driven home by the framing device of a mother reading it as a bedtime story for her children. They must be especially patient children, though, because a full 26 minutes elapses before André Dussollier’s down-on-his-luck merchant, having lost his fortune and his way in a blizzard, plucks the fateful rose that invokes the wrath of Vincent Cassel’s Beast, who demands that the merchant return the next day to forfeit his life. In the merchant’s place, though, comes his daughter Belle (Léa Seydoux), who slowly comes to learn there’s more to the melancholy monster holding her prisoner than meets the eye.
Now, strictly speaking, Beauty and the Beast isn’t a genuine werewolf narrative since the Beast isn’t capable of changing back and forth between his two forms — although he technically does thanks to Belle’s nightly dreams which double as flashbacks to how Cassel’s Prince came to be cursed — but there’s no denying that it plays on some of the same themes of duality. (That these are mirrored in the Prince’s tragic backstory is no accident.) And it’s not a horror film, but Gans takes pains to keep the Beast hidden from view initially, enshrouding him in shadows, keeping him out of focus, or only showing his paws or a close-up of his mouth. That all changes, though, once Belle gets her first clear look at his face when she awakens to find him watching over her (not at all creepy, dude). From then on, despite his repeated demands that she not look at him, Belle (and, by extension, the viewer) gets an eyeful of the leonine Beast. (When a peripheral character encounters the Beast, he asks point blank, “What are you, anyway? A lion? A big cat?”) And while he tries to keep his savage side from her, it has a way of asserting itself at inopportune moments.
As lavish as the production is (it’s not for nothing that it was nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design at the César Awards, where it won Best Production Design), it’s unlikely that this telling of Beauty and the Beast will stand as the definitive one. For one thing, the CGI employed for the Beast’s furry visage and his overly cute canine helpers (which turn into ordinary puppies when their master transforms back into a man) will probably age about as well as digital effects tend to (i.e. not at all). For another, Gans and co-writer Sandra Vo-Anh add some wholly unnecessary elements to the story’s climax, which could have stood to be less bombastic. Mostly, though, it has to contend with Cocteau’s wondrous vision, which has been enchanting audiences for seven decades and remains as beguiling as it ever was.