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.
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.