“La Belle et la Bête,’’ a modern-day version of “Beauty and the Beast’’ that has arrived at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, is an absolute feast for the eyes — and a real trial for the ears.
In this case, it’s an acceptable trade-off to make, but just barely.
On a purely visual level, “La Belle’’ is a stunner, pouring forth one unforgettable three-dimensional image after another. Throughout “La Belle,’’ codirectors Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon sustain a shadowy and dreamlike atmosphere that is enhanced by Michel Smith’s mysterious music. With virtual characters interacting with live performers, the 90-minute show could, and should, add up to a compelling argument for multimedia storytelling.
But a key part of that equation — the story — is a major impediment to “La Belle,” a Lemieux Pilon 4D Art production presented by ArtsEmerson. The script (by Pierre Yves Lemieux, translated by Maureen Labonte) is such a relentless parade of breathless, melodramatic clichés that nearly every line of dialogue groans beneath the weight of either portentousness or preciousness. Perhaps that’s why, with one exception, the small cast performs with such self-conscious stiffness.
That exception is the luminous Benedicte Decary, whose portrayal of Belle pulses with a sense of discovery but also of self-awareness. This is a sensuous, grown-up Belle. She’s a painter who works in a Rothko-like manner, flinging red paint at her canvases in an apparent attempt to express her inner torment.
Her mother has died, and her father, an art dealer, has withdrawn from Belle. Digitally generated versions of her sister (Anne-Marie Cadieux) alternately berate or encourage Belle in her work (the tall 3D version is scathingly nasty, the short version simperingly sweet).
Belle heads to the manor of the reclusive, hooded Beast (Vincent Leclerc), a client of her father’s, in order to return the final rose of a stone medallion the father had promised him. In short order, she’s saying dreamily of the Beast: “I really want to see his face.’’ The Beast is wary of her at first, but his interest quickens after he sees her paintings. He suggests a deal: He’ll show her his face if she tells him why she paints the way she does.
Their relationship builds too quickly. In its many iterations, including the 1991 Disney animated gem, the appeal of the Beauty and the Beast story has been not just that two such dissimilar figures turn out to be soulmates, but that it takes them a leisurely while to find that out. That sense of steadily building dramatic momentum is missing from “La Belle.’’
Narrating the action and observing the fast-developing romance between Belle and the Beast is a character identified only as the Lady (Diane D’Aquila). The Lady has long been in love with the Beast, and her anger at his interest in Belle leads her to an extremely bloodthirsty meditation on the younger woman’s fate. It is she who opens the show with: “Who am I? Always the same question no one is ever spared.’’ It is an augury of the caliber of dialogue to come. But visually, what a treat “La Belle’’ is. A holographic white horse gallops across the stage; torrents of digitally generated rain fill the theater; a mirror shatters and the (virtual) shards fly everywhere; the Beast encounters multiple versions of his earlier self; a demon looms hellishly over the proceedings as if he’d escaped from a painting by Hieronymous Bosch.
By the end of “La Belle et la Bête,’’ you’re left to contemplate both the theatrical possibilities of technology and its limits. Your eyes have been dazzled, but your ears are ready for a rest.