Gans' Colorful 'Beauty and the Beast' a Dull, Passionless Affair

Directed by: Christophe Gans; Runtime: 112 minutes
Grade: C

Fantasy films have a way of casting a spell over their audience by drawing them into the imaginative environment or period in which they happen, a cinematic effect to which French writer/director Christophe Gans is no stranger. While his experience possesses more of a gritty, horror-driven slant, from his depiction of the historical Beast of Gevaudan as a werewolf to the eerie metaphysical realm of Silent Hill, his daring orchestration of production design and cinematography similarly deepen the immersion within both outlandish settings. Beating Disney to the punch, Gans latest film takes aim at a new live-action version of the classic French fairytale Beauty and the Beast, fusing together his experience with sprawling atmosphere and tenacious humanoid creatures with a more colorful, fanciful storybook setting. Without the grittier, morbid inclinations of his previous works, however, he's created a visually alluring yet sleepily-paced fable, with stilted iterations of its iconic characters that stick out like sore thumbs.

First written in the mid-1700s, Beauty and the Beast has a storied history of undergoing several iterations, edits, and streamlines following its creation, but the core of its plot and motifs remained intact, telling the story of a well-to-do family forced to live in the countryside after losing their wealth. While the rest of the patriarch merchant's children pine for the days of their riches and fine garments, the youngest of the siblings, Belle (Lea Seydoux), relishes the rustic lifestyle and separation from the excess. In hopes of an unexpected windfall, the merchant goes to town to claim this fortune and pick up some presents requested for his children, only to find himself stranded in the wilderness and unable to return. He's helped by a stranger (Vincent Cassel) -- an elusive man nestled in a nearby castle -- who promises to send him home with all the items the children desired, on the condition that the debt be repaid with his life. Upon hearing about the conditions, Belle goes in his stead, becoming the beast's subservient guest.

In his previous creations, Christophe Gans hadn't been able to play with the wide gamut of colors and softer, delicate textures afforded to him by Beauty and the Beast, and he fully embraces the opportunity. Pairing the editorial lavishness of costume designer Pierre-Yves Gayraud (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) with the mixed focus on character intimacy and sprawling settings from cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne (Mr. Nobody), he's crafted a fantasy realm here that's sporadically grounded yet imaginative and ornate at the same time, centered on Belle's extravagant garments and the enigmatic enchantments swirling in the beast's home. While lovely to look at, the drawn-out tempo of the merchant family's hardships and Belle's acclimation to her new living conditions lacks the zest and momentum that Gans has previously built around horror-driven suspense. Not unlike what happened with Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland -- complete with unusual big-headed hounds scurrying around the castle, a substitute for a lack of singing candlesticks and teacups -- the broad fanciful rendering of the atmosphere surrounding Belle becomes hypnotizing in the wrong lulling and subduing ways.

A lot of the success of a production of Beauty and the Beast -- pretty much all of it -- relies on the rapport that evolves between Belle and her furry, intimidating host, in how the barriers put up by both are broken down by their transcendent connection. Despite the acting chops of Blue is the Warmest Color starlet Lea Seydoux and a heavily disguised Vincent Cassel, this intimacy never materializes into a convincing dramatic heart at the center of the film, hampered by the lack of chemistry between the two actors … or, perhaps more accurately, between Seydoux and the movie-making magic that went into shaping Cassel into her feline imprisoner. Gans' adapted script, alongside big-screen writing newcomer Sandra Vo-Anh, does understand the original intents of the fairytale (more so than other modern takes) and of the duo's shifting relationship, but they neglect to make these attitude shifts seem believable. Combined with the constrained, standoffish performances from Seydoux and Cassel, the passionate changes in their relationship come across as erratic and unjustified in how they relate to the characters.

Christophe Gans' Beauty and the Beast is a strange ... uh, beast, in that it both sticks more closely to the source material's framework than other versions, notably Disney's spin on it, while also wildly branching out with distinctive motivations and repercussions behind Belle's custody at the castle. From magical healing waters and the will of forest gods to stories-high stone statues that crackle to life, there's no shortage of dazzling high-fantasy in the many deviations in his alternate take, which also reflects upon the director's fondness for Hollywood-caliber theatrics. Alas, there's little restraint or cohesiveness in the broadness of the enchantments and curses that impact the story's moving parts, and when coupled with hit-and-miss digital effects and familiar visual cues -- the cataclysmic ending shares a few parallels with Silent Hill -- Gans cannot cast a spell persuasive enough to stay invested in the mythical grandeur. These are shortcoming that could've been overlooked, possibly even improved, had the French writer/director fully realized the essentials of this tale as old as time.

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