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February 17, 2014 10:07 PM
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Berlin Review: Christopher Gans' 'Beauty and the Beast,' With Lea Seydoux and Vincent Cassel, Is a Fairy Tale Dud

Lea Seydoux in "Beauty and the Beast."

The recent spate of fairy tale movies from around the world has been, at best, a halfhearted effort. On the heels of "Red Riding Hood," "Snow White and the Huntsman," "Mirror, Mirror," "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters," "Jack the Giant Slayer," the upcoming "Maleficent" and the television series "Once Upon a Time" comes “Beauty and the Beast”, the new film by French director Christophe Gans ("The Brotherhood of the Wolf"), which follows suit. After being released in Gallic theaters in early February, the movie premiered last week at the Berlin Film Festival.

By this point, most viewers know the story by heart, but Gans' version at least starts with a different take: a narrator reciting the tale of a widow merchant (Andre Dussollier), father of six, whose riches were jeopardized by a shipwreck that forced him to move to the countryside. While his jeering older daughters (Audrey Lamy, Sara Giraudeau) ceaselessly complain about their dwindled status, the youngest and most innocent among them, Beauty (Léa Seydoux), is the only child her father can rely on — especially after he's beholden to a strange Beast (Vincent Cassel) who lords over a nearby magical kingdom.

This new version, adapted by the director and co-writer Sandra Vo-Anh from a truncated version of the tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (the original text was penned in 1740 by French writer Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve) is largely a misfire. Gans sets his take during the period of the First Empire in France,  provides him with a perfect excuse to make use of lavish costumes and scenery (inspired by 19th Century French paintings) in order to render the viewer oblivious to the film's narrative and dramatic shortcomings.

The film is certainly a visual treat, especially due to the prolific use of CGI-enhanced images, but it bares so much of Gans' imprint that it may be confused for a sequel to his critically acclaimed 2001 feature "The Brother of the Wolf." This is particularly noticeable in his camerawork: long shots of people or animals (or people on animals) running combined with slow motion and an abrupt stop, which by now can be considered his signature.

Unfortunately, Gans clings too much to his own style to give freedom to pretty much everything else, most notably acting and pace. Filled with empty line-readings and bland CGI, "Beauty and the Beast" lacks any semblance of originality.

The static plot isn't helped by the weak cast, as they act in front of colossal sets and green screens; following in step, Gans sacrifices the story for visual spectacle. This is especially notable in the lack of chemistry between the protagonists, which stems from an incoherent and uneven script that subjects the viewer to an overlong beginning and a rather scrambled, absurd and even unnecessary ending that mixes the beloved fairytale with other folkloric and mythological references: bizarre creatures that are a hybrid between Gizmo and Japanese cartoon characters (it takes a while to figure out what they really are) and even more ludicrous giant rock sculptures that defend the Beast’s enchanted kingdom, an all-too-clumsy reference to the gods and Titans of the Greek mythological pantheon.

The only mildly impressive construction is flagrant resemblance of the Beast's castle to Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu in Orson Welles’ "Citizen Kane," a more than welcome reference point in an otherwise uninspired cinematic mess.

In all this confusion, one can still perceive some of the fairy tale's main themes: the beautiful young woman whose lovely nature tames the beast in the man, the advice not to judge by appearances and even the feminist discourse beneath the surface of the story — but none of it solidifies enough to make a difference. At least the costumes by Pierre-Yves Gayraud provide a source of constant astonishment. But that's just one tiny shred of beauty in this beast of a dud.

Criticwire Grade: D+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? While the appeal of the fairy tale and the name talent may provide the movie with some elevated presence in European theaters, its theatrical prospects elsewhere are limited.



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