The Bear (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
While digging a hole in front of a tree in search for food, a rockslide occurs and kills an adult bear. Its young now motherless and without protection, the cub roams the mountains and finds a male grizzly. Though their relationship starts off rocky, the grizzly and the orphan eventually get along. However, what they have is threatened when two determined hunters (Tchéky Karyo, Jack Wallace) show up and wish to add the grizzly to their collection.
“L’ours,” also known as “The Bear,” employs minimalism in dialogue and score to underline the experience of bears and hunters in the wild. Although it works for the most part, it wavers in focus and moves away from the reality it so lovingly creates when human-like characteristics are given to the cub just for the sake of having cheap “Aww!“ moments.
The first part of the film is nothing short of impressive. One can easily mistaken the film for a documentary. Without dialogue, a contrast is established between human and non-human animal through images and sounds. When the bear is on screen, emphasis is placed on the growls and grunts of the cub, the tapping of its feet on the grass as it attempts to catch an energetic frog, and the singing of the crickets within the surrounding area. When the camera turns its attention on humans, the crackling of the fire breaks the silence and there is metallic clinging as weapons are prepared for the next day’s kill.
One of its themes involves the fragility of humans and the durability of non-human animals. A bear is hit with a bullet and it is able to run away. A horse is attacked and it, too, manages to escape. Dogs are almost ripped to shreds but they are able to run across great distances and return to their owners. A person, however, twists his foot on a rocky terrain and his confidence to survive in the wilderness wanes suddenly.
Memorable images are abound. When the cub is washed downriver, there is an increasing level of tension the longer it stays in the water. With its short arms and lack of strength against the current, we wonder if it will get rescued. At one point, the cub gets a taste of condensed milk and it seems unable to get enough of it. And then there is the chase between the cub we have grown to care for and a mountain lion. Naturally, there is blood during the confrontation.
Less impressive—verging on annoying—is when the cub sleeps and the picture cuts to a dream sequence. Even if animals dream, we do not know for sure at this point in time if they dream like humans do. When it enters a dream, I saw a person dreaming, not an animal. This is only one of about half a dozen examples of anthropomorphism utilized in the film. They are distracting and they take away some of the mystery and magic from the experience.
Adapted from a novel by James Oliver Curwood and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, it must not be easy making a movie like “L’ours.” To capture the animals doing exactly what they are supposed to do, it must require a lot of patience and training from the filmmakers and technicians. But it offers more than effort. Many of the imagery are really quite stunning and they have to be seen to be believed.