Though too low-key for its own good, Belle ultimately works as an art-house horror film thanks to an ending that fully rewards audience patience.
Belle is the latest attempt to create a sophisticated, adult version of a children’s fairy tale, in this case “Beauty and the Beast.” This is a difficult assignment, but even if the film does not always succeed in its ambitions, it is different enough to interest cinephiles eager for a new take on an old subject.
Despite misleading poster art (including the tag line “Tale as Old as Time”), Belle is not a riff on Disney’s animated and live-action films; it’s not even particularly indebted to the two French adaptations, La Belle et la Bête (1946 and 2014, respectively). Rather, Belle‘s Nordic vibe (filmed in Iceland, though with English dialogue) recalls Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, another art house drama laced with horror elements. The deliberate pace, the focus on characters’ turmoil, the use of isolated locations to depict a world that looks real but contains fantasy – all of these are used to lure in unsuspecting audiences before ambushing them with the murder and cannibalism.
Belle (2023) Film Review: A Handsome Beast
In this version of the story, the magical rose can heal any illness, and the Beast (Ingi Hrafn Hilmarsson) was cursed to guard it by an unseen female narrator whose love he spurned. Belle (Andrea Snædal), hoping to save her dying father, travels to the Beast’s cave where, to her surprise, the fearsome monster is revealed to be a handsome man who graciously hands over the rose. A local woman (presumably a witch) uses the rose to cure Belle’s father, but there’s a catch (called an “unless” in the dialogue): her father’s illness will return unless Belle lives with the Beast. Considering how accommodating he was on their first meeting, this does not sound like too much too ask, but shortly after returning to the Beast’s cave, Belle witnesses him killing and devouring two men who try to steal the rose.
Still believing he is bewitched rather than evil, Belle devises a plan, conducting experiments to see what triggers his transformation from man to monster (the change is temperamental rather than physical, visually suggested only briefly with a pallorous complexion and dark rings round the eyes). The Beast reveals there is an “unless” to his curse: he will remain as he is unless he can fall in love. Belle makes awkward efforts in this direction until the Beast kills some of her father’s friends who have come to rescue her. It seems her plan to redeem the Beast is doomed…unless…
Belle (2023) Film Review: Fairy Tale Horror
Belle falls prey to the usual difficulties afflicting “adult fairy tales” – an oxymoron roughly equivalent to “melted ice” (i.e., being melted, it is no longer ice). Without the fairy tale’s fanciful aura – there is no enchanted castle; besides the rose, the only magical object is a mirror – the film has to rely on more prosaic character interaction to tell its story. To some extent this works in the film’s favor, creating a seemingly insurmountable obstacle: without a chorus of singing teapots and cutlery to egg them on, how can Belle and the Beast fall in love?
The film’s answer to that question undermines Belle’s plan to fall in love, instead suggesting that circumstance and spontaneity rule the heart. A highlight occurs two-thirds through when Belle and the Beast take shelter with a couple living in an isolated house. Noting the tension between them, the husband offers a word of advice, telling the Beast that Belle is “always right” even when she’s wrong – which is not only a good joke but also shows the Beast changing his attitude toward Belle. This sequence has a delightful charm missing from the rest of the film, creating a sense of awkward intimacy that legitimizes the attraction between Belle and the Beast (leading to some mild nudity).
The downside is that, after a reasonably intriguing opening, the first half of the film is too low-key to fully sustain the drama, which eclipses the horror for most of the running time. The early scenes are most replete with sinister imagery: the unseen Beast attacks thieves in the dark; a mysterious blind woman (looking like Emily from 1981’s The Beyond) lurks ominously on the path to the Beast’s lair; and Nosferatu-like shadowy hands creep along the cave walls when Belle ventures inside.
After the Beast is revealed as a handsome man, his predations are kept mostly off-camera, revealing just enough to motivate Belle’s revulsion, especially when the victims are known to her. The impact is more moral than visceral, forcing Belle to question whether she can remain with this monster even if leaving him will cost her father his life. These touches enliven the proceedings considerably, but the film could have used more of them.
Belle (2023) Film Review: Conclusion
Where the film succeeds most consistently is in its use of landscape to establish tone and help convey the character’s emotional states. Vast and empty, sometimes awash in volcanic steam, the locations depict an untamed natural world that is somehow the perfect setting for this unnatural story. There is even an echo of Wuthering Heights, with the Icelandic tundra standing in for the wild English moors; Belle’s relationship with the Beast echoes the charged relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff – not to mention Jane Eyre and Rochester. In fact, more than a fairy tale, Belle feels like a Gothic romance, with the innocent Belle trying to tame the beastly Byronic bad boy (who true to form, is tortured with self-loathing – not to mention, haunted by the ghosts of his victims).
Ultimately, Belle builds to a seemingly contrived climax that raises unanswered questions (why is the witch who cursed the Beast surprised that he fell in love with someone else instead of her?). By all rights, it should feel forced and phony (it nearly had us yelling at the screen), and yet, miraculously, it ends on exactly the right note, obliterating any objections with a final word of dialogue that falls perfectly into place like a puzzle piece, completing the picture in a way that is not only satisfying but cathartic, making everything that came before worthwhile.
1 – Avoid
2 – Not all bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
Belle falls prey to the inherent contradictions of trying to make a fairy tale for grownups, but it works as an art-house horror film, thanks to an ambitious effort to find a new spin on an old story, an expressive use of landscapes, and an ending that fully rewards the audiences for its patience.
Credits: Distributed by Level 33 Entertainment. Written & Directed by Max Gold. Produced by Lauren Bates, Zoey Dachis, Max Gold, Ingi Hrafn Hilmarsson, Shane Donahue, Kellen Witschen, Thomson Nguyen, Eva Sigurdardóttir, Sharon Powers, Randy Arthur, Linda Yellin.
Cast: Andrea Snædal, Ingi Hrafn Hilmarsson, Hana Vagnerová, Gudmundur Thorvaldsson, Helga Braga Jónsdóttir, Sigurður Sigurjónsson.
92 mins. English language. Filmed in Iceland. Not Rated by the MPAA (TV-14). US Theatrical Release: July 14, 2023.
Belle is currently playing an exclusive engagement in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle’s Glendale Theatre. It will be available via Video On Demand starting August 22.