EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, films like “Belle” wouldn’t exist.
No matter if it’s the big Disney adaptations or the original 18th century fairy tale by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, there’s a prerequisite lavishness to Beauty and the Beast that is part of its core appeal. The story’s traditional setting is a veneer of royal lineage, castled confines, and a lap of luxury that feel like promised rewards to whichever female suitor can tame the beast and break his curse. But what if that comfortable and figurative pot of gold wasn’t at the end of the rainbow?
Belle is a striking new interpretation of Beauty and the Beast that presents that type of barren simplicity to a tale as old as time. With a rustic storytelling scythe, Silicon Beach writer-director Max Gold chops down the tall grass of finery and strips away the usual imperial accouterments. Melding the intimations of fantasy and horror, Belle gets down to the nitty-gritty of the classic saga’s dramatic center and its truthfully terrifying undercurrents.
With no pixie dust or “once upon a time” trumpeting, the Belle of this story (newcomer Andrea Snædal) is the lone daughter to a single father (Gudmundur Thorvaldsson of Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga). Belle is a devoted daughter, yet there is a flickering desire for independence when she denies an engagement of marriage brokered by her father. As they move past that crossroads and live off the land in a rural cabin, the father becomes ill with tuberculosis. With poor prospects of treating him, Belle turns to seeking out a particular red rose that is said to have healing properties.
Local lore says that its “petals could stop death in its tracks.” However, the same mythical gossip, represented by a mysterious female stranger (Borders of Love’s Hana Vagnerová), warns that it is guarded by a violent beast of a man who dwells in a seaside cave. Devoted to her only parent, Belle musters up the courage to leave her homestead, find this flower, and encounter its haunted protector.
This is where Belle begins to veer modestly from the familiar fairy tale. When Belle finds the precious rose and discovers the vaunted Beast (Ingi Hrafn Hilmarsson of The Noise of Engines) lurking in the cavern’s shadows, she discovers him to be a handsome, bearded man with flattering eyes. Instead of trying to steal the rose, Belle simply and bravely asks for it. The man, swayed by her courage and heart, allows her to leave with the rose and use it as medicine to save her father.
They part ways after this interaction only for two term-based revelations to come to light. The first is, as it’s called in the film, the “unless” catch where the rose’s miraculous effects will keep Belle’s father alive only if she stays with the Beast. The second disclosure is the ghastly unveiling that the Beast has been a vampiric cannibal killing and devouring those who have wandered into or attacked his cave for plundering. Belle is now faced with the fairy tale’s classic impossible decision.
Enhancing the desperation of this melodramatic plight is Belle’s drastically altered setting from the source tale. As hinted at in this review’s introduction, lavish estates and grand architecture are exchanged for the sparse and rugged elements of Iceland. Belle was shot in and around the gorgeous grounds of the Laugarvatnshellir Cave and the Heller Caves. Combined with low-light cinematography by short film director of photography Nico Navia, the startling textures of the merging geology and fauna give the film an eerie and borderline haunting atmosphere of vulnerability and claustrophobia.
Amid the physical and natural dangers, the emotional core of Belle remains of choices made for love. True to Beauty and the Beast, Belle is choosing her father over her own fear and safety, showing strong storge familial love. This act to stay is weighed as a sacrifice and evolves to be challenged by Belle’s growing affinity for the man behind the beast.
Once the truth is out about the cannibal rumors of the cave-dwelling Beast, the next choice for love steps forward. Belle is asked how she can stay and defend this monster that massacres people. Casting another layer of fear away, her honorable answer is “deep down, I believe he’s a good man.” She feels this is the right path for herself. How that hopeful content of character from Belle is seen and demonstrated– mostly through the couple’s mutual quest to discern and conquer his curse– becomes the crux of the film.
At that point, Belle needed to swell and deliver on the promises possible from this arduous path of devotion. It doesn’t need an orchestral happy ending, per se, but Belle is missing a measure of fiery romantic passion that would defrost the otherwise icy circumstances. Andrea Snædal delivers her side of the smolder. She embodies a stalwart, yet fetching romantic figure. We feel her longing every step of the way, but the same cannot be said for Ingi Hrafn Hilmarsson. Either the script or the direction asked him to play his human moments flat, awkward, and with no internal spark. More could have been squeezed from him and his handsome presence.
In a way, once again, that’s where the fairy tale peril and swoon-worthy ending transformations needed to take over. Belle eschews that build-up and release for something more ineffectively more bland. When the film is ambitiously swinging its pulse-rate pendulum toward the frightening horror side of matters, Belle grabs us tightly, living up to its opening narrated mantra of, “Things out of our control usually the scariest things are the ones we cannot understand.” However, Max Gold does not put the same energy into the romance of it all when that should have the capability of speeding up the heart as much as the scares.