Friday, December 08, 2023

The French Blockbusters of Christophe Gans: The Brotherhood of the Wolf and Beauty and the Beast '14

I've probably shared these anecdotes on this blog before, but they fit:

Back in 2001, the Boston Film Festival was a thoroughly different beast than it is now - it had different ownership, commandeered multiple screens in the Loews Copley Place (now a Saks Fifth Avenue), running a lot of things that played TIFF a few days earlier, and for the most part, things would sit on a screen for roughly a day - two evening shows, three matinees the next day. You could see everything. Anyway, 9/11 happened right in the middle of the festival, so there was some disruption to the festival, as you might imagine. My first film of the day was Sam the Man, a comedy starring Fisher Stevens (who I was kind of surprised didn't have the accent from Short Circuit) directed by Gary Winick (I thinkI'd liked his The Tic Code). However, the prints were in the wrong place, so when me and another handful of people sat down for that movie, we instead were served up Brotherhood, and if I hadn't been planning to see that next, holy crap! They eventually seated us in the right theaters and restarted the movies, but yes, that made Sam the Man feel even less impressive.

I would spend the next four months or so before its January release. If you want to dig, you can probably find reviews at either Ain't It Cool (I filed dispatches from Boston Film Festival one year under the name "Paul Revere", as one did then) or Home Theater Forum, but, well, there's better uses for your time and mine than finding them.

Flash forward a dozen years, and I'm in Paris, using some vacation time that won't roll over just before Christmas, spending some evenings watching English-language movies that may or not get released in the United States, and one of the trailers I get is for a version of La Belle & La Bete directed by Gans, and my eyes go wide like saucers, because, unimpressed as I'd been with Silent Hill, this looks amazing even if I'm only sort of half-comprehending the French-language dialogue. I'm not sure quite how much the Disney live-action remake is rumored versus set at this point, or if I knew Gans was doing this, but I figured it had to be getting an American release, right? Folks know Gans, they know Léa Seydoux and Vincent Cassel, it looks amazing, etc., etc.

It doesn't, at least not in Boston - apparently there was a very limited release in late 2016, two and a half years after it played France, and then it hit video the next year, when the Disney remake arrived. I ordered a copy, naturally, but the same thing happened as with most discs I order - it wound up on a shelf, sticking out slightly to remind me I hadn't seen it, and remaining there because most nights I go see something in the theater or watch baseball or am trying to catch up on something else. This week, I figured to watch something from my "seen before, new discs" piles, and hit on Brotherhood, and somehow came up with the idea of watching Beauty and the Beast as a pairing. This, it turns out, is a pretty good idea, since all the scenes of Vincent Cassel hunting a beast in flashback tie it even more closely to Brotherhood.

And it's fun! Maybe not quite the movie it could have been, but it's an enjoyable family movie (although one with a French level of ambient sexiness), and kind of fascinating in how Gans and company are taking a fairly well-known fairy tale and seeming to do as much as they can to distinguish themselves from the Disney version without doing the "we've got a horror guy directing this, let's make it twisted!" thing. Considering how Disney would soon be doubling down on every decision they made in the early 1990, and how that owes a clear debt to the Jean Cocteau version, seeing this now has everything a bit more exciting and unexpected.

Back in 2017, I kicked around the idea of getting my nieces the Cocteau & Gans versions and saying "hey, every other relative is going to get them the Disney versions, this is what I'm for". Chickened out, though. They've kind of aged out of that now, although I'm still tempted.

Between 2013 and now, though, there have been no new films from Gans; if the Silent Hill sequel shows up next year as expected, it will be ten years between new movies, which really seems like a lot. I'm not plugged into what's going on in French film to know if maybe he's got a reputation as a bad guy. Sure, that doesn't always seem like it would be a particular problem in France. I also don't know what the exact box-office calculus is in France; I could sort of see a situation where Brotherhood and Beauty are very expensive movies, relative to the local norms, but not exactly hits. Meanwhile, Silent Hill wasn't a hit either - it did well enough to spawn a cheaper sequel - so he's not making a leap in the USA.

On top of that, it's extremely hard to get a movie made, especially if you've got the sort of ambitions Gans has. He's been attached to various things - something called The Adventurer with Mark Dacascos, a movie based on the Fatal Frame games - and it's worth noting that Silent Hill is the only movie where he's worked from someone else's screenplay. If he's not taking work-for-hire, it's probably not hard to spend years developing something only to see it not pan out, several times. He would have been a great get for Marvel when they were doing canny buy-low moves to hire really talented people who hadn't quite hit it big or hadn't had a hit in a while, but that's not really their MO anymore, and who knows if Gans would be up for it?

So, here's hoping that Return to Silent Hill is good and he gets a chance to do something big again - these are fun movies, and for all that Gans wouldn't be the only one-hit wonder of this sort in cinema, it still seems very strange that someone could make this sort of international splash and then only make two other movies over the next 20+ years without much in the way of overt controversy.

Le pacte des loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 December 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

Brotherhood of the Wolf is a bit flabbier than the non-stop thrills I remember from first viewing, and not just because some scenes have been added for the "director's cut" on the 4K disc (those, oddly, all feel necessary): There's a fair amount of not getting anywhere in the first hour which, coupled with the authentic casual racism of the 18th-Century aristocracy, awkwardly countered, can make one wince. Did this really knock me flat when I first saw it, just because I'd never seen that sort of French genre film before (because anything in French hitting theaters in Worcester, MA or Portland, ME was art-house stuff)?

Yes, it did, and still kind of does, because the things that make it awesome and cringe-worthy are more or less the same things: Christophe Gans approaches this movie like he hit some sort of lottery in terms of being able to make it and goes all-in as if he knows he might never get a chance to do this sort of grand pulp adventure again: It's got horror, martial-arts, heaving bodices, conspiracies, and more, a slick presentation of cheerily disreputable pulp material that never winks at the camera like Gans wants to make sure the audience is in on a joke - he is earnestly enthusiastic, whether punctuating a conversation by exploding pumpkins with various weapons or cross-fading from Monica Bellucci's breasts to a snowy mountain range. It's a Hammer movie being made by someone in the Raimi/Woo mold, but who is also very much French, bringing a different flavor of cool cynicism and sexual energy to the story.

It can be a little much, especially for an American for whom the conflict with royal and papal power seems like a lot of noise in the background, like there are more factions and conspirators than the movie really needs to make the action explode out of simmering conflict. When it does, though, Gans and his cast throw themselves into it, especially once Samuel Le Bihan's Fronsac has the whole thing spread out before him and ready to rampage. The filmmakers hit a nice balance between using the Beast sparingly and revealing it, keeping the story somewhat mythic - though I do wonder just how much FX work has been reword for the director's cut, as the Beast seems much more digital than I remember.

It's fortunate that Gans did put it all in this movie, because he really hasn't had much chance to do something similar. This may no longer be the surprise it was when it came out, but it's still a darn entertaining monster movie.

La belle et la bête '14 (Beauty and the Beast)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

Christophe Gans's take on Beauty and the Beast is very much the take on this classic story that one might expect from the maker of Brotherhood of the Wolf, generally more for better than worse. It's great-looking, exciting, and makes a conscious effort to do things differently than other versions of the fairy tale, whether that means returning to the source or envisioning something new; it's also got enough going on that the simple beauty of the story can occasionally get buried.

Take the beginning, where we learn that Belle (Léa Seydoux) is the youngest of six children, and that her father (André Dussollier) was a wealthy shipping magnate brought to ruin when his three ships sink on the same voyage - well, by "ruined", forced to move from the city to their country estate, which suits Belle fine. An attempt to revive his business has the father fleeing town after a run-in with Perducas (Eduardo Noriega), whom gambling-addicted oldest son Maxime (Nicolas Gob) owes a great deal of money, winding up at a mysterious castle which presents him with a chest of treasure, but when he takes a rose for Belle, he angers the estate's beastly resident (Vincent Cassel), who gives him a day to make his farewells before being killed, lest the beast kill the whole family. Belle chooses to return in his place, and could be the key to breaking the curse upon the manor and its master.

That's a lot of story for a tale that is at its heart so simple that almost anybody can articulate its events and themes Belle's family is so large that I'm not sure if one brother got either a name or signature personality trait, and there's a whole thing about Perducas's lover Astrid (Myriam Charleins) having some sort of mystic abilities that kind of gets batted around in the finale but seems like an big thing to ultimately have so little impact. There is also a lot of work put into delivering flashbacks to Belle about how the Prince became the Beast, and some of that effort would likely have been put into looking at how he and Belle draw closer together, maybe differentiating Belle from his first great love (Yvonne Catterfeld).

When Gans gets down to business and focuses on the title characters, it's terrific. Vincent Cassel is at his cocky, roguish best in the flashbacks, making his younger prince a font of passion and charisma but possessed of enough selfishness that it is no surprise that he will need to be taught a terrible lesson. It's a nifty balance of him deserving this but still being redeemable, and while one might feel Cassel is under too much makeup as the Beast, there's perhaps some logic to it: He has, by this point, more or less been consumed by the worst aspects of masculinity, and Cassel doesn't hold back on the Beast being a monster until Belle can see him as otherwise.

The best thing in the film, though, is Léa Seydoux as a Belle who is at no point a naïve ingenue: She knows full well how apt her name is and is going to make the Beast work for her affection. Seydoux's Belle is playful and kind, but also sure enough of herself that she can bristle at the idea of being a replacement for anybody, whether it be her mother or the princess, and without getting into too-modern language, she presents a sharp contrast in her body language and attitude between when she's given a sexy dress to wear so that the Beast can look at her during dinner and when she's chosen something beautiful herself.

That last dress is a rose that envelops her, maybe impractical but certainly a great visual considering how important the flowers have been throughout the film. If there are times Gans and his crew are perhaps visibly trying too hard to avoid the choices of other adaptations, particularly Disney's animated classic, he's still got the eye for a striking image that often elevated Brotherhood (as well as carrying over a disdain for hunters who kill gratuitously) and horror-movie instincts that let him make the castle and its grounds scarier than one might expect from a family film, though there are times when the magical isolation enhances the fairy-tale quality as well. There's plenty of visual invention on display, and he's able to make the inevitable gut-punch at the end of the flashbacks work even though everyone in the audience knows where it must be leading.

Inevitably, Gans's version of this tale exists in the shadow of two masterpieces (the Disney and Cocteau versions), and for all that the filmmaker is not timid, one does occasionally wonder if he occasionally worked a little too hard at doing something different and so didn't give the actual romance of the title characters as much attention as he could have - as with Brotherhood, he might have figured this was his one shot at a family blockbuster and poured everything into it. Even with that, it's an impressive production that manages to feel modern but not anachronistic, and an interesting contrast to other takes on the story.

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