Form and Fairy Tale: the visual appeal of La Belle et la Bête

July 31, 2016 § Leave a comment

Christophe Gans’ extravagant French film adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast” will be shown in select cities this September, and from the looks of the trailer, it’s right in line with the CGI live-action extravaganzas we’ve been treated to by Hollywood in the last handful of years.

Praised and awarded in Europe for its luscious production design, La Belle et la Bête is hardly the kind of film you could describe as “restrained.” But restraint isn’t really what the film industry has in mind for fairy tales lately; I’m immediately thinking of the bombastic giant-human battles in 2013’s Jack the Giant Slayer and Maleficent’s sparkly, fairy-populated Moors in 2014. It’s worth noting that La Belle et la Bête was also originally released in 2014, followed in 2015 by the much more understated (and more disturbing) Tale of Tales, directed by Matteo Garrone. (Warning: trailer below is NSFW)

One European critic called La Belle et la Bête “flamboyant” but “accessible to all audiences” and there’s the rub, I think. It seems to be part of the trend that “accessible” fairy tales (read, meant to entertain both kids and adults) are seemingly dependent on spectacle to appeal to broad audiences. But fairy tale films like Tale of Tales that use very little CGI, if any at all, are usually meant for more strictly adult viewers, such as Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard and Sleeping Beauty. I’m curious if we’ll reach a middle ground in the next few years, in which fairy tales films are made to appeal to broad audiences but are made in a way that utilizes the fairy tale’s own understated, bare-bones form. Kate Bernheimer’s done quite a bit of work teasing out what defines a fairy tale’s literary style: flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic (from her essay “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale”). These aren’t visual qualities, but narrative ones: if I were to say (perhaps correctly) that the visual landscape of La Belle et la Bête is far from “flat,” I’d be talking about something completely different. Bernheimer uses the term to describe how characters in fairy tales are psychological uncomplicated; how their motivations do not need deep explication, nor do we expect their experiences within the tale to lead to dire psychological consequences. And yet in fairy tale films, especially the ones like Maleficent which seek to give familiar villains a complicated backstory, psychological motivations are the central theme. These films, too, are often the ones which seem to be so over-the-top visually. I’m curious what would happen if filmmakers sought to apply Bernheimer’s elements of fairy tale form to their films, experimenting with understated motivations and magic; I think ideally we’d see something not meant to stun and awe us with the grandeur of another world, but something meant to comfort and disarm us with its strange familiarity.

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