By Noel Vera
Beauty and the Beast
Directed by Bill Condon
I’LL SAY THIS much for Disney’s live-action remake of its animated feature: it improves on one scene, where Belle (Emma Watson) gushes to the Beast (Dan Stevens) about Shakespeare’s Verona-set tragic romance. The previous Belle sang about her love of books but never once mentioned a title or author, just details about some generic standard-issue romance (Stephenie Meyer? E.L. James?); at least this one volunteers an actual name, a published work.
The Beast rolls his eyes — of course she’d pick that! Belle indignantly demands that he suggest a better alternative, and he promptly leads her to his vast library stack, with shelves stretching above and away from her. Yes, the earlier flick did turn on their supposed love of literature but in this one you actually feel the sexy give-and-take of two bibliophiles wrangling over their preferred texts.
And the Beast’s eye roll? Who has ever run their fingertips across a sheet of pulped wood and scribbled ink sniffing its heady aroma and hasn’t felt some measure of condescension for the relatively uninitiated? It’s the movie’s best moment, so funny and honest (particularly because the Beast doesn’t think much of his expensive education, having failed to land a successful high-paying career) it actually made me sit up and pay attention for maybe, oh, an entire minute.
Which was it for me, alas; found myself sliding back down to my habitual slump a bit later, not coming out of it till the end credits rolled.
This should really be my cue to use the earlier animated picture to bludgeon the brand new live-action remake into hamburger, but sorry, not a fan of the 1991 “classic” either — aside from my sneaking suspicion that Belle’s ’philia is only skin deep, I thought the movie every bit as cheaply sentimental as most other Disney features I’ve watched (the rare exception — Sleeping Beauty — being such a grandly expensive, emotionally cold visual banquet it lost an equally grand stack of money at the box office).
Seems to me comparing remake and original here is like judging contestants in an ugly pageant — not only is it difficult to pick a winner (Stale banality versus freshly overproduced?) but the whole exercise is silly; you could and should be doing better things with your time.
Like watching TV. The fable is flexible enough to be employed not just in different productions but different mediums — I submit that Noah Hawley’s Legion is a psipunk take with paranormal powers in place of magic (or are the two just different names for the same fabulist effects?), imagery drawn not just from David Lynch (the strobe lights, the dead silences, the surreal horror imagery) but David Cronenberg (Did they lift each episode’s end credits design from Naked Lunch?). Confusing and not as moving? Good — hate, hate, hate Disney’s insistence on catering to the ADHD emo crowd, where you need to cram an action sequence or sight gag into the movie every three minutes or millennials start checking their smartphones, hate, hate, hate, hate Disney’s insistence on jerking you off for your tears (and other less socially appropriate bodily fluids).
Then there’s Guillermo del Toro’s woefully underrated Crimson Peak, with Mia Wasikowska as the hapless Beauty, Jessica Chastain as her gorgeous evil witch of a sister-in-law, and Tom Hiddleston as the more morally ambiguous, more sexually potent Beast (He’s apparently capable of love, only which Beauty are we talking about?). The effects are digitally (if lyrically) realized, and the house itself is a production designer’s Gothic nightmare of a wet dream, looking all the world like a malignant growth sprouted from his skull and just kept going, for several stories.
But never mind Del Toro or Hawley or, for that matter, Tim Burton (“You’re Beauty and the Beast in one luscious Christmas gift pack!”); we always come back to — you know I’ll always come back to — Cocteau. His La Belle et la bete begins not in a French village or gloomy castle but a classroom, with folks walking up to scribble the beginning credits on a chalkboard.
Poet of the fantastic, Jean Cocteau knows that to achieve a tangible sense of the fantastic you need to focus on texture, objects, everyday business. We meet Belle’s family and they’re a vulgar bunch, with brothers firing arrows into windows and sisters who think they’re still upper middle class (the dad is one of the nouveau poor, his wealth wiped out when his fleet of ships sank). The plot starts out of strictly mercenary motives — the father hears news that one of his ships made port, and sets out to collect what money he can get; when he’s lost along the way he seeks shelter in a castle, runs afoul of the Beast when he plucks a souvenir rose from the garden (ultimately Belle volunteers to take his place, thus introducing the two lovers). Property rights and trespassing issues and negotiated transactions — not the most enchanting ingredients for a fairy tale, which is exactly what Cocteau cooks up.
Doubt if Cocteau, presented with the option of going digital, would do so, would instead use the same stage-magician tricks he’s used before. In Blood of a Poet: doors open by themselves, candelabra flare up and swing as you pass (basically held by arms poking out of walls, then filmed and projected backwards), a mantelpiece face has smoke curling out the nose. Cocteau presents the everyday and the fantastic side by side then wipes out the difference, the fantastic every bit as solid and matter-of-fact as the everyday — a neat trick and something Cocteau achieved on a low budget, with seeming effortlessness (Del Toro, for all his talent, threw a lot of money at his Mervyn Peake pastiche, and you see the dark sweat circles round his armpits from the effort).
Tale as old as time? Maybe — some folks reckon the story was being told as far back as 6,000 years ago — but really you only have to turn to Beaumont condensing Villeneuve in 1756, and, above all Cocteau — taking the simple and commonplace and producing miracles — in 1946.
MTRCB Rating: G