The classic 1946 French version of Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête) featured an opening epigraph that explained the concept behind director Jean Cocteau’s live-action fairy tale: “Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us.” That faith gets compromised in the new live-action musical Beauty and the Beast. Its attempt to sneakily indoctrinate children (and adults) into Disney Corporation banality recasts the nature of parent-child (and Hollywood-consumer) relations so that that bond is subsumed in state-sponsored political correctness. This new version — with its feminist Belle (Emma Watson), a crude, chauvinist-male Beast (Dan Stevens), and a “diverse” underclass of servants and objects-come-to-life (performed by Josh Gad, Audra McDonald, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor) — is a fairy tale that confuses liberal social engineering with “magic.”
Viewers — particularly parents — who cannot discern the difference between entertainment and propaganda may have already been duped by Disney’s long-standing entertainment hegemony. It’s a mistake to think that such propaganda is innocent storytelling. This Millennial Beauty and the Beast becomes grim progressive silliness when it erases basic gender distinctions and politicizes the background and experience of the commoner Belle and the aristocratic Beast. It’s a blockbuster touting specious lessons in Occupy logic and “tolerance.”
Cocteau’s sumptuous post-WWII lesson was ideal. He provided cultural continuity between the narrative simplicity of the original 18th-century fairy tale and the moral sophistication of the 20th century. The still-unparalleled credit sequence, rarely discussed by critics, ranks as probably the most ingenious narrative introduction in movie history: Cocteau and his lead actors, Jean Marais (La Bête) and Josette Day (La Belle), appear as themselves in a school classroom–movie set. The maestro writes the film’s title and the stars’ names on a chalkboard. The actors, their backs to the camera, approach the board and erase their own names — acknowledging their participation in a cinematic conceit. They playfully indicate the magical erasure of reality by fantastic whim in the cinematic storytelling that is to come.
Disney’s versions of the tale are not nearly as sophisticated as Cocteau’s. Starting with the awful (yet popular) 1991 animated musical Beauty and the Beast, Disney turned magic into shrill obviousness. Its banality proved more crowd-pleasing than Cocteau’s once-popular surrealistic adaptation. The current version, clunkily directed by Bill Condon (who ruined both Dreamgirls and the Twilight vampire-romance series) prides itself on PC Broadway inanity and cynicism. Condon choreographs the cartoon’s songs, carrying on the movie-musical ineptitude of Disney’s Into the Woods. It’s “modern” to a fault. This unbeautiful Beauty and the Beast (full of special-effects as annoying as the cartoon version’s fake splendor) can only distinguish itself by being as oppositional as a Broadway show. Belle’s sexual politics and an unnecessary gay subplot involving the villain Gaston (Luke Evans) and LeFou (Gad’s servant character) are part of Disney’s effort to replace traditional notions about love, family, community, and sex with fashionable ideology about gendered love.
Watson’s Belle is not a love-starved innocent but a feminist standard-bearer (like a less strident Anna Kendrick, lacking only a college student’s iPad). Her warbling of Alan Menken’s dreadful songs — as with the movie’s overall use of singing, animated fantasy, and dancing to express heightened emotion — ultimately demeans what should be irresistible and universal about the fairy tale’s expression of romantic longing. (The title song and the hebephrenic “Be Our Guest” rank with Hollywood’s most foul anthems.) And Stevens, made into a ram-horned Beast under a wicked spell, is too obvious. He lacks the mystery, the sensual growl, and sexual threat of Marais’s furry, misunderstood predator. Such video-game-style caricatures of this literalized fantasy reveal Disney’s execrable habit of re-engineering popular aesthetics. Its goal is to create a generation of political camp-followers, nonthinkers, and future Broadway tourists — in short, miseducated consumers.
The speciously “evolved” sexual and social attitudes of this updated fairy tale flatten and coarsen the Beauty and the Beast myth that Cocteau (a gay, polymath genius) made exquisite. When Cocteau encouraged his audience to suspend disbelief, he invited them to participate in romantic danger and wishful bliss. The Disney approach is childish, and it is not justified by political trendiness (such as Gad’s oafish gay-baiting, which repeats his eunuch-like snowman Orlof in Frozen).
At this point in our evolved sexual standards, it is appropriate — in fact, necessary — to judge Disney’s version by other filmmakers’ sensual daring and moral instruction. It is important to hold better films as the standard: Catherine Breillat’s updated adult erotic fairy-tale Bluebeard and Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, the 1985 semiotic analysis of Red Riding Hood.
Cocteau’s wondrous Beauty and the Beast gave the world Marais’s wolf-like wounded romantic hero and Day’s graceful Belle. The entire film’s aura of enchantment reign superlatively. Moviegoers who don’t know Cocteau’s version — and anyone who takes children to this new swill — merely capitulate to Disney propaganda. They cheat themselves while Disney corrupts the faith of future generations.
Terrence Malick’s newest spiritual meditation, Song to Song, takes place in the Austin, Texas, music scene, yet it looks just like Malick’s Hollywood-set movie Knight of Cups. It’s all Malickland, where good-looking actors gambol like actors do off-stage while their voice-overs intone questions and prayers. The major quest in Song to Song is Malick’s search for a story. He may be one of the last Hollywood believers, but this time his filmmaking amounts to nothingness. The ease of digital shooting and editing encourages Malick to meander along with his cast — Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender as frolicking music-industry “brothers” who break-up over business and a woman.
Betrayal here is less Biblical than in Malick’s 2012 To the Wonder. It’s dramatized in an elliptical narrative that includes literal navel-gazing — of Rooney Mara as the love triangle’s fulcrum and of Natalie Portman as Fassbender’s wife. This quartet continually flirts, gropes, licks, humps, and fornicates, playing out Malick’s increasingly carnal subject matter. Several peripheral sex partners take this story beyond temptation. One character speaks for them all when confessing: “I played with the flame of life.”
That would be a better title than Song to Song if only Malick understood that sexual compulsion and the spiritual hunger it masks were no longer avant-garde subject matter. (Perhaps he means the Old Testament’s Song of Songs.) Josef von Sternberg and Michelangelo Antonioni also got there before him. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are talented enough to recall those masters, but their undisciplined sketchbook-improvisatory style doesn’t come close, it’s just picture-taking. Malick makes the amateur’s mistake of evoking art beyond his capability — not just the distracting cameo appearances by John Lydon and Patti Smith but especially the excerpt from Dimitri Kirsanoff’s Ménilmontant (1926), perhaps the most intensely violent, sexual, and emotional movie ever made about mankind’s fall from grace.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.