Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bete): Berlin Review

Overblown and unconvincing, this update of the French fairy tale has some choice moments, but mostly bites the dust.

Vincent Cassel (“Black Swan”) and Lea Seydoux (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) star in director Christophe Gans’ adaptation of the timeless French fairy tale.

Neither the cinematic beauty that is Jean Cocteau’s 1946 masterpiece, nor the commercial beast that Disney released in 1991, French director Christophe Gans (Silent Hill, The Brotherhood of the Wolf) delivers an effects-laden adaptation of the famous fairly tale whose visual flourishes hardly compensate for a premise that plays out as kitschier than ever before. Released on Gallic screens just before its international bow at the Berlinale, this hefty €33M ($45M) Franco-German production feels at once too contrived for adults and too overcooked for kids, resulting in one giant fur ball of bleh that will see only modest returns at home and abroad.

There have been many attempts to bring this cherished story of forbidden love -- first published in 1740 by French writer Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve -- to both the big and small screens, with Cocteau’s version (starring Jean Marais and Josette Day) remaining by far the most memorable. And with Disney’s animated children’s favorite raking in close to $400 million worldwide, followed by a hugely successful musical that has grossed more than $1.3 billion since opening two decades ago, there’s no denying that this animal is worth milking to the max.

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But just because it’s a tale often told, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to tell it, and while Gans and debuting co-writer Sandra Vo-Anh pretty much follow the broad lines of the original narrative, they add on a cast of CGI monsters and cheeseball baddies who severely distract from the romance at its core. Yet it’s ultimately that romance which feels the most phony here, with the two leads struggling to bring out any emotion at all as they cry and kvetch in front of a series of colossal sets and green screens.

Things start off somewhat promisingly, with a narrator reading us the tale of a widowed merchant (Andre Dussollier) and father of six, whose fortunes are compromised by a shipwreck that forces him to move to the countryside. While his snickering older daughters (Audrey Lamy, Sara Giraudeau) can’t stop moaning about their lessened status, the youngest and purest one, Beauty (Lea Seydoux), is the only child her father can rely on, especially after he becomes indebted to a mysterious Beast (Vincent Cassel) who rules over a nearby kingdom of magical proportions.

The early sequences, in which Gans finds some clever ways to transition between the storytelling and the story itself, are marked by a few standout visuals from DP Christophe Beaucarne (Mr. Nobody), who captures the ice-capped forests and lush winter fields with colorful, constantly moving widescreen compositions. But whenever the camera settles down to record a simple conversation between two characters, things suddenly feel stilted, as if the filmmakers cannot build the drama without flinging a hundred different things in front of the lens at the same time.

This mise-en-slew becomes overwhelming when Beauty arrives at the Beast’s crumbling fortress to offer herself up as ransom. As it takes time to finally meet the monster in person, Beauty wanders around the property, becoming acquainted with a pack of CG critters -- who look like French hunting dogs morphed with Gizmo from Gremlins, and are supposed to provide comic relief -- while entering a magical fountain through which she learns the sad facts of her captor’s past, involving a fated princess (German actress Yvonne Catterfeld), a deer, a crossbow and plenty of mystical nonsense.

It’s understandable that Gans wanted to introduce some kind of backstory to beef up the legend’s rather flimsy structure, but all these new additions just come off as silly, especially a sub-plot involving a bandit with a prominent face scar (Edouardo Noriega) who threatens Beauty’s brothers, becoming a major factor in the denouement and thus further diluting from the burgeoning love affair between the hotty and the hairy.

The director does offer up one decent sequence between the star-crossed pair, when Beauty tries to run away and the Beast manages to pin her down on a splintering lake of ice. But the actors otherwise take second billing to the massive decors (courtesy of Thierry Flamand) and visual effects (supervised by Louis Morin), with Cassel stuck behind a digital mask and over-modulated voice, while Seydoux suffers through endless costume changes (it’s a sort of running gag), her forced facial expressions captured in enough extreme close-ups to outrival Blue is the Warmest Color.

In the end, it’s hard to tell who this pricey update was really made for. The plot becomes so childish by the final act, audience members were cracking up at the movie’s official press screening in Berlin. Yet there’s also too many thundering sound cues and late moments of violence -- and let’s not forget an earlier scene where blood trickles down an actress’ bare buttocks -- to make this a family-friendly venture. Unlike the welcoming lyrics of the Disney version’s hit song, “Be Our Guest,” this Beast winds up scaring us away before it can turn back into a prince and then live happily ever after.

Production companies: Eskwad, Pathe, TF1 Films Production, Studio Babelsberg, 120 Films

Cast: Vincent Cassel, Lea Seydoux, Andre Dussollier, Eduardo Noriega

Director: Christophe Gans

Screenwriters: Christophe Gans, Sandra Vo-Anh

Producer: Richard Grandpierre

Executive producer: Frederic Doniguian

Director of photography: Christophe Beaucarne

Production designer: Thierry Flamand

Costume designer: Pierre-Yves Gayraud

Editor: Sebastien Prangere

Music: Pierre Adenot

Visual effects supervisor: Louis Morin

Sales agent: Pathe International

No rating, 112 minutes