Some people under 40 are likely to think “Beauty and the Beast” is a classic story created by Disney in 1991. But that animated movie, which has enthralled millions of little girls and boys (and many of their parents, too), was actually based on a hefty novel by France’s Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve published in 1740 as “La Belle et la Bete.” In France, it was a best-seller of the Harlequin Romance variety: a sexy, dark love story conducted in a secret castle, tucked away in an enchanted forest. Apparently, it became quite the thing among the elite ladies and gentlemen of France to dress for masquerade balls as Belle or Bete (the Beast) — perhaps to spice things up in the romance department.
And now “La Belle et la Bete” has been reclaimed by the French, with a live-action version that’s neither sugar-coated nor excessively child-friendly but loyal to the spirit of the original. For one thing, all dialogue is in French; there’s also a lot of brooding and frustrated sexuality, and even a hint of Simone de Beauvoir-style feminism; and it pairs two of France’s hottest actors — Lea Seydoux (fresh off the steamy set of “Blue is the Warmest Color”) and Gallic badass-stud Vincent Cassel.
“This movie is an entirely different animal from the Disney picture,” says director Christophe Gans in an interview with The Japan Times. Gans is no stranger to the world of beasts and beastly males — his milestone work from 2001, “Le Pacte des Loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf),” was a werewolf mystery set in 18th-century France.
“While I don’t mean to take anything away from Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ I feel that the story in that was too rushed, avoiding the complexities that made the original so compelling,” says Gans. He adds that, if anything, his movie is closer to Hayao Miyazaki’s “Mononoke Hime ( Princess Mononoke).”
“That work is a wonderful example of how Japanese culture has coexisted with nature and nature-inspired mythology. Western culture has always tried to conquer nature, but the Japanese seek to understand it. I feel like that’s also the spirit behind ‘La Belle et la Bete,’ ” says the 54-year-old director.
He goes on to explain that Madame de Villeneuve’s original work was “heavily influenced by pre-Christian, Greco-Roman mythology, but these (influences) were often symbolic. For example, the woman feels the allure of a beast she encounters in a forest, and then becomes aware of her own sexuality.”
Indeed, in the movie, Belle (Seydoux) is more fascinated than terrified when she meets the Beast (Cassel) for the first time, even though her father has given her every reason to be scared stiff. The youngest child of a wealthy merchant (Andre Dussollier) who has fallen on bad times, Belle is depicted as an adventure-loving free spirit who opts to appease the Beast rather than her father and goes forth alone into a forest dense with thorny trees.
When the Beast lays his eyes on her, he demands that Belle dine with him every night. She agrees and, in the process, becomes obsessed with knowing who he really is. As for the Beast, he falls for Belle without admitting it.
“The title suggests that Belle and the Beast can occupy the same identity,” says Gans. “Belle discovers elements of the Beast inside her and vice-versa. They are almost interchangeable. Though Belle represents innocence and virginity, she experiences a sexual awakening. And the Beast — though violence and brutality are in his heart — also has a shining innocence and decency.”
The character San in Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke” exemplifies that oneness. She is a wild child brought up in the woods by wolves, wearing a fur cape with a wolf’s head, while her closest companion is a wolf-god.
“Belle also longed for oneness with the Beast,” says Gans. “Not just in a sexual way, but a spiritual bonding as well. The love story between Belle and the Beast is unique in that respect — they don’t ‘hit it off,’ as it were, to live happily ever after. The story goes deeper, as does their relationship. There is a mystery at the core of the Beast, and Belle is intrigued by it. She wants to know him, to discover things about the Beast and about herself. She also wants to help him.”
As far as fairy-tale princesses are concerned, the version of Belle in Gans’ film is active and aggressive. She is unafraid to take fate into her own hands, whatever the consequences. Belle is also anti-materialistic, though that clashes with her resplendent frocks, comprising some of the most visually arresting scenes in the film.
“Lea Seydoux was perfect for Belle because she herself is like that — always looking gorgeous, but not really caring about it,” says Gans. “Vincent Cassel has a very charismatic, male personality. He’s like the Beast, too — terrifically selfish, childlike and ultimately charming. He assumes that he’s destined to take center stage in everything, and he’s right. That quality is imperative, both for an actor and for the Beast.”
The love story was the biggest aspect that drew Gans to “La Belle,” mainly because there is “a tremendous willpower at work here, to know the other person and understand them,” he says. Gans adds that he’s aware of how, in the modern world, this sort of desire is rapidly becoming extinct.
“Every relationship is a story, but I feel that people are less interested now in weaving their own stories. Which is sad, because the most intriguing mysteries of life are inside other people, whatever form or shape they take.”