I doubt that there’s anyone who doesn’t know the story of Beauty and the Beast, from the classic Disney animated film that I grew up with to the Broadway stage musical to the upcoming live-action film adaptation directed by Bill Condon.
Variations of the story, however, originated some four thousand years ago and have been retold across the millennia. Suffice to say, it’s a familiar story with instantly recognizable themes. While director Christophe Gans’ film adaptation is exceedingly simplistic in its storytelling, it not only benefits from its sweet simplicity, it allows the film to indulge in its mythic and magical qualities.
Beauty and the Beast, of course, is about a beautiful young woman – appropriately named Belle – who is also pure of heart and generous of spirit. In this adaptation, she is the youngest of six children – two vain and homely sisters, a well-intentioned but semi-criminal brother, an untalented poet brother, and a shy and gentle brother. These six children are cared for by their merchant father after their mother dies giving birth to Belle.
The family is rich and prosperous until the father’s shipping fleet gets lost at sea and they are forced to move to the country. All but Belle are horrified by this outcome – but Belle, being pure and simple of heart, adores her new country lifestyle. However, due to a complicated series of events, the father ends up in the hands of a terrible Beast who lives in an enchanted castle. He has one day to say goodbye to his family before the Beast kills him. Belle, who refuses to be the cause of another parent’s death, goes in his place. The rest I’m sure you can vaguely guess.
The characters, for the most part, are your classic fairytale archetypes – the girl of pure heart, the arrogant prince, the greedy ruffian, the vain sisters – but their two-dimensionality, rather than detracting from the believability of the story, actually adds to the magical storybook quality of the film. In another film of a different style, one would never come to identify with Belle’s eventual love for the Beast. But this is a fairytale, and women come to fall in love with unworthy men all the time. As far as character motivation goes, the animated film is perhaps more complex. The only drawback to this is that the film is perhaps too long to sustain a story and characters of such saccharine simplicity.
Despite the simplicity of the characters, they are rather enjoyable to watch, no small thanks to the actors playing them. Lea Seydoux is sweetness itself, displaying a breathtaking beauty that at first disguises an incredible strength. Vincent Cassel has a swagger about him, by turns both charming and insufferably arrogant, perfect for a cursed prince. Despite his faithlessness, we are inclined to forgive him his childish willfulness, perhaps imagining those razor sharp charms turned toward us. In the end, as he stands on the hillside outside Belle’s family cottage, now a humble farmer cutting a sleek silhouette against the horizon, when he takes Belle passionately in his arms we have eyes only for him. Strikingly (and refreshingly) enough, while the women are posed like statuesque dolls – things of elegance and beauty – it is Cassel who is the sex object.
But more than the characters, its the enchanted world of the story that draws the viewer in. Impossibly cavernous castles, magnificently wasteful banquets, great scenic expanses, stone giants, lavish gowns, flowing capes – each frame is as richly detailed and picturesque as an illustration from a storybook, everything a little larger than life and improbably beautiful. Belle’s gowns alone are a feast for the eyes, vibrant of color and intricately designed, her billowing dresses are of the style worn by the ladies in the court of Louis XIV during the 17th century – that period in France most associated with extravagance and hedonism, to give you an idea.
Perhaps the hazy magical quality of Beauty and the Beast shouldn’t be so surprising, given Gans’ penchant for mystical settings and supernatural circumstances. I vaguely remember seeing Brotherhood of the Wolf with my high school French Club, but recall being entranced by the mysterious and foggy atmosphere and the starkness of the unforgiving medieval countryside – a fairytale land of a different kind, but a world just as rich and full as that to which Belle and her Beast belong.