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Sergei Bodrov Sr: The Bear's Kiss (2002)

reviewed by Daniel H. Wild©2004

 

This film, without question, will become part of cinematic legend. It provides us with a legacy, namely the last on-screen images of the promising Russian film star Sergei Bodrov, Jr., who disappeared in a disastrous glacier avalanche, along with a large group of his film crew, while on location for a film production in North Ossetia in September 2002. Unfortunately, this may be the only reason that The Bear's Kiss will be remembered at all. Its tagline reads: "Don't be afraid to believe!" and this seems like good advice because the film taxes our imagination considerably. Once again director Sergei Bodrov employs his son's good looks and rugged charm as he did in his acclaimed 1996 film Prisoner of the Mountains. But his latest film constitutes a significant shift away from the ingenuity and seriousness with which Bodrov tackled the problematics of Russia's role in the Caucasus by reimagining Tolstoy's famous short story. Instead, The Bear's Kiss takes us away from important issues of human conflict and transports us to the timeless world of a traveling circus. And any sense of gravity that a reference to Tolstoy would entail has now been reduced to a bizarre sequence early on in the film in which the face of a white-bearded old man, a dead ringer for Leo Tolstoy, is briefly shown as a forlorn but content figure sitting in a large, quintessentially Russian crowd enraptured by the performance of a circus bear. 

That bear belongs to Lola (Swedish actress Rebecka Liljeberg), a lonely and sullen fourteen-year-old, whose mother Carmen and stepfather are circus artists. Apart from Groppo the Clown, who keeps an eye out for her, Lola's only real companion is her bear, whom she has named Misha. Carmen confirms Lola's suspicions that she is not her real mother and abandons her. A year goes by. One morning she finds a naked man (Bodrov Jr.) in the bear's cage. It is Misha, who reveals to her that he is a shape shifter from the Siberian taiga, capable of shifting back and forth between ursine and human form. Because of his free-spirited nature, Misha cannot abide living in a cage any longer and begins to roam the streets where he rescues Lola from an attacker. The authorities get involved and they are forced to leave the circus. Lola loses her virginity to Misha—in his human incarnation—one romantic night in the woods and she begins to evolve towards incorporating human sexuality in addition to the nurturing devotion she has previously shown her pet animal friend. The two of them, along with the clown, join a street-performing sideshow, a motley crew of misfits who are led by a man named Lou. The group ends up in Spain where a fortuneteller prophesies the good news that Misha will soon remain in human form. Lou has plans for the bear and wants to wrestle him for money in front of wagering audiences. When the bear humiliates him in the first match, Lou in a frenzy whips him, and then goes on a drunken rampage during which he tries to rape Lola. Misha kills Lou, but is captured by the police. A frantic Lola visits the gypsy woman again, but she tells Lola that Misha will now remain a bear forever because he has killed a man. With the help of Groppo, Lola manages to free Misha and the two lovers drive across Europe back to Misha's home. It looks like Lola will have to sacrifice her one true love because she knows that in his bear-state he yearns for the freedom of the wild. She begs him to leave her. When he finally does, she hesitates but then chases after him in desperation. Suddenly now, two bears are running together through the endless Siberian woods.

The Bear's Kiss is a truly pan-European film production. Under the auspices of a German company, eleven production companies are credited for the film, among them German, Swedish, Spanish, French, and Italian entities, as well as the St. Petersburg-based STV film company. Moreover, the original version is in English dialogue, filmed with an international cast whose skills range from reliable to remarkable. A transnational conglomerate of producers on this scale might confirm suspicions of the oft-invoked "Europudding" results that such collaborations seem to generate. Indeed, the notion of The Bear's Kiss as a contemporary European film is troubling. The film promises a Europe without borders but, in doing so, abandons any nuanced conceptions of difference, save for the most hackneyed and humorless caricatures possible. This is the reason that we are offered gypsy fortune-tellers in Spain who dance flamenco at night, that we see respectable businessmen suitably repulsed yet mesmerized by the harmless freakishness of street performers, that any understanding of the difficulties in a nomadic life has been reduced to the depiction of journeys across bridges. By the time the film actually reaches a real border, the scene involves an encounter with some of the most benign and accommodating Russian border guards ever seen on the screen, as if, yes, the power of love transcends all boundaries or the absence of passports. In its insistent reliance on clichés the film aligns itself, to put it charitably, with a range of cinematic predecessors and intertextual references, starting with the generic notion of behind-the-scenes circus life, complete with sad clown, fat lady and midget, and a protagonist named Lola. As usual, teenagers are lonely and misunderstood. Adult males are threatening. Italian families are loud.

All of this might be excusable if such prefabricated cinematic elements or habituated thought patterns were redeployed in the service of something more meaningful. But the film's only illusion of depth lies in its cloying tendency to shift abruptly and frequently into slow-motion sequences, ostensibly to emphasize the idea of a shape-shifting perspective, but mostly to compensate for a lack of significance. It seems that Bodrov Sr. is content with suggesting that the film constitutes a timeless fairy tale, yet refuses to convey a sense of wisdom that would necessarily accompany a mythological dimension. Rather, the film comes across as reactionary. It reacts to complexities that surround questions about deviance and normality, place and identity, which are articulated in Lou's beautiful song ("Are you beauty? Are you beast? Is this West or is this East?") by taking refuge in aggressive simplicity. Like any adolescent fantasy, the film mistakes this simplicity for profundity because it comes tinged with a sense of majestic self-pity.

Daniel H. Wild, University of Pittsburgh


 

The Bear's Kiss (Germany/Russia/Sweden/Spain/France/Italy 2002)

Color, 98 min. In English, Italian and Spanish.

Director: Sergei Bodrov, Sr.

Script: Sergei Bodrov, Sr., Carolyn Cavallero, and Terrence Malick (uncredited).

Cinematography: Xavier Pérez Grobet.

Editor: Mette Zeruneith.

Music: Giya Kancheli.

Art Direction: Maria Haard, Yosune Lasa, Gregor Mager, and Elena Zhukova.

With: Rebecka Liljeberg (Lola), Sergei Bodrov, Jr. (Misha), Joachim Król (Groppo), Keith Allen (Lou), Ariadna Gil (Carmen), and the bears Seryozha, Ilya, Gosha, and Vorchun.

Production: STV Film Company, Pandora, et al

 


Sergei Bodrov Sr: The Bear's Kiss (2002)

reviewed by Daniel H. Wild©2004

14/07/04