Hey, everybody! Guess what! It’s Beauty and the Beast Month here at Fairy Tale Fandom.
That’s right! For the rest of March I’m going to focus on posts about that tale as old as time, “La Belle et la Bete”! This will include a review of the new Disney adaptation at some point.
But for today, I thought I’d focus on the version of Beauty and the Beast that beat Disney’s live action outing to theaters by a whole three years. The difference is that this movie came out in France.
This specific version of Beauty and the Beast is directed by Christophe Gans and stars Lea Seydoux and Vincent Cassel as the two title characters. For a long time, I thought American audiences wouldn’t get to see this version. But thanks to the good folks at Shout! Factory, it’s now available on DVD with an English dub (Good old Shout! Factory. How can you hate someone who gives you DVDs of French fairy tale movies, Japanese superhero shows and Mystery Science Theater 3000?).
The basic story is the same as the one set forth by Mme. Villeneuve and Mme. Beaumont. Belle is the daughter of a rich merchant and has two spoiled sisters and three mostly spoiled brothers (the youngest brother is kind of okay). The family loses all its fortune when three of the patriarch’s ships are lost at sea. So, they retreat to a small house in the country where everyone acts like a spoiled pain in the neck except Belle herself. When the father finds out that one of his ships has been salvaged, he goes to the port with a list of gifts for his children in hand, including Belle’s request for a rose. The father’s luck does not improve as his ship’s cargo is seized by his creditors and he gets lost in the forest on his way home. In the forest he finds a seemingly abandoned castle where he finds food and gifts laid out for him to take. However, on his way out he picks one rose for Belle. This angers the Beast who owns the castle. He allows the father to return home and say goodbye but demands he return on pain of death. “A life for a rose”, he demands. And if you know this story, you know Belle does not take this lying down.
So, yeah, that was an awful lot of recap I dropped on you. But I wanted to make a point. Namely, that they included a lot of the stuff that got left out of the Disney version. In fact, they include a lot of stuff that no one would blame them from dropping. They even keep the dreams Belle has where she sees the Prince, though they’re often used here to explain the Beast/Prince’s back story. Though, there are things that are left out. For example, Mme. Villeneuve’s version of the story ends with Belle’s mother showing up to reveal that Belle is actually a fairy princess or something like that. A lot of adaptations ignore that part, and this one is no different.
The one thing in “Beauty and the Beast” adaptations that it seems like everyone gets to do their own take on is the backstory of the Beast. In the earliest version by Mme. Villeneuve, the prince simply turned away the unwanted advances of a fairy. The fairy cursed him because she was being petty and vindictive. In Jean Cocteau’s famous version, he was punished because he and his family did not believe in magic (yes, that’s about all the explanation that’s given). In Disney’s version, it was because the prince turned away an ugly old beggar woman who turned out to be an enchantress. Now, this movie also has its own take. You see, it’s revealed through Belle’s dreams that the prince was constantly involved in a hunt for a golden deer. He had other things in his life including a court and his wife, but the hunt seemed to take up a good part of his time. One day, he finally manages to hunt down and kill the deer. However, it turns out that the deer isn’t really a deer. The deer was just another form of a person, and it was a person that he knew and loved dearly. It’s then that the “god of the forest” curses the prince to be a beast. On top of that, the rose bush is shown growing from where the golden deer fell, explaining why the roses are so precious to him.
It’s a different take. It’s an unexpected take. And it’s kind of a fitting, interesting take.
The overwhelming moral or lesson or theme that’s long been associated with “Beauty and the Beast” has always been “look beneath the surface” or “don’t judge by appearances”. There’s still some of that in this version, but there’s another theme that runs through the whole thing and you might not even see it at first. The theme is the damage and harm that people can inadvertently do to each other. If you think about it, it’s always been there in the story. Belle’s father thinks he’s doing right by his family by giving them everything they want, but instead he makes Belle’s siblings spoiled, lazy and arrogant. Belle thinks asking her father for a rose is a simple request, but it turns out to be a request that has a big impact on her family. She also doesn’t think it’s a big deal to stay away from the castle longer when the Beast lets her go, but it’s a decision that nearly kills the Beast. The new villain who’s added to this movie also supports this reading. It’s not strange for new villains to be added to the story of “Beauty and the Beast”. Jean Cocteau’s version added a hunter named Avenant who was also a suitor for Belle. Disney did much the same thing but named theirs Gaston. In both cases, they were handsome men who were monstrous underneath the surface. Gans’s film takes a different approach. The villain in this version is a thug named Perducas. Perducas is neither beautiful on the surface or underneath. He also has no desire to stake a claim on Belle. In short, he’s nothing like either Avenant or Gaston. Instead, he’s a criminal who Belle’s brother owes a lot of money to. He’s also the one that Belle’s father is running from when he goes into the forest and stumbles on the castle. At the end of the film, Perducas along with his own men and Belle’s brothers go to the Beast’s castle because Belle’s brother has convinced Perducas that it’s filled with treasure (specifically, enough to pay off his debt). Perducas’s involvement is another way that someone’s choices have an unforeseen impact. In this case, it’s the brother’s debts that now impact the life and home of the Beast.
At least, that’s my reading of it right now. Ask me after the next time I watch it and I might tell you something different.
Visually, the film is absolutely stunning. Every frame is gorgeous to look at. Even when some of it takes a turn for the strange, like the introduction of the strange doglike creatures called Tadommes, everything else looks beautiful enough that it’s easy to overlook it. Though this version is far more elaborate and features far more special effects, it’s easy to see the influence of JeanCocteau’s classic 1946 film in it. The Beast’s design is essentially a modernized version of the one from Cocteau’s film. Lea Seydoux’s stern and reserved resistance to the Beast while in his custody is reminiscent of Josette Day’s performance in the 1946 film. Even the prince’s hunt for the golden deer is reminiscent of elements of classical mythology that Coctea drew on in his film. Yet, the film always feels like it’s paying homage rather than simply aping Cocteau’s film.
I like this film. While it may not be quite the drastic reimagining some people might want, I think it’s a solid adaptation that still manages to find its own voice. Give it a try if you get the chance.