Review: ‘Bear’s Kiss’

Switching from his hard-hitting social and political dramas like the war story "Prisoner of the Mountains," Russian helmer Sergei Bodrov delivers an ill-conceived fairy tale about a young circus girl in love with a shape-shifting bear who, to court her, transforms himself into the director's handsome actor-director son Sergei Bodrov Jr.

Switching from his hard-hitting social and political dramas like the war story “Prisoner of the Mountains,” Russian helmer Sergei Bodrov delivers an ill-conceived fairy tale about a young circus girl in love with a shape-shifting bear who, to court her, transforms himself into the director’s handsome actor-director son Sergei Bodrov Jr. (who was tragically killed in the freak Sept. 20 avalanche in the Caucasus while shooting a new picture). Given that no story is too outre to turn into a good movie with the right ingredients, something went wildly wrong with “Bear’s Kiss,” a badly acted Europudding shot in English with a first-grader’s vocabulary and depth of characteri-zation. This may provide a clue to the film’s ultimate audience. Snipping out one small nude love scene, “Kiss” would be ready for marketing as a kidpic with additional appeal to young teenage girls. It looked quite odd in Venice competition.

In a simple piece of animation showing a girl walking through the woods, pic announces its fairy tale intentions. Live action begins with a scene out of “Bambi,” as a native Siberian hunter shoots a mother bear trying to protect her cub. The adorable orphaned cub next appears in the cage of a cynical animal dealer, with 14-year-old Lola (Rebecka Liljeberg) convincing her circus parents, Marco (Maurizio Donadoni) and Carmen (Ariadna Gil), to buy it. She and Misha the bear become inseparable. Lola stays behind with him when Carmen leaves the circus after confessing that Lola is a foundling left on the doorstep of their trailer.

Ringmaster Silvio Orlando’s flashy circus travels from Russia to Sweden and Germany, where one night the bear vanishes from his cage. In his place, a savage young man (Bodrov Jr.) appears, insisting he’s Misha. Lola goes to a church to ask God if she’s lost her marbles; just as a stranger is snatching her purse, Misha/Bodrov runs in and saves her. That night in the woods, the two young people make love.

While performing with a tawdry street group run by Lou (Keith Allen, whose Brit accent makes his one of the only credible perfs), Marco dies in a motorcycle accident. Lou, Lola, Groppo the Clown (Joachm Krol) and the bear go to Spain, where gypsy fortune-tellers explain the dynamics of shape-shifting to the girl. When Lou sexually assaults Lola, Misha once more defends her, killing Lou and condemning himself (on gypsy authority) to remaining a bear forever. The tale reaches a satisfying conclusion, on its own terms, back in the Siberian forest.

The international cast doesn’t put much effort into overcoming script’s elementary dialogue, and pretty young Swedish lead Liljeberg (seen in “Fucking Amal”) is particularly flat. With his werewolf looks and animal magnetism, Bodrov Jr. makes a sexy bear-boy; like Krol as the clown, he benefits from having minimal dialogue. Others, such as fine Italo comic Orlando (“The Son’s Room”), are the victims of national stereotyping, which includes cynical Russians willing to sell their grandmothers, hot-blooded Italians with a passel of kids, sexually vulgar Germans and carefree Spanish gypsies who dance the flamenco. Basically there is something to offend audiences in every producing country, which is an odd marketing strategy.

On the plus side, film is an extremely colorful melange of Xavier Perez Grobet’s self-assured camera, with beautiful nature shots of the Russian forest by Sergei Astrakhov, Karin Lohr’s eye-catching cos-tumes and Bernd Lepel’s imaginative sets (the opening circus act is stunning). The sad, plaintive sound of shamanic chanting and the music of SIG and Giya Kancheli give film a little depth.

Bear's Kiss

Germany-Sweden-Russia-Spain-France-Italy

Production

An Istituto Luce release (in Italy) of a Pandora Film Produktion in co-production with Pyramide Prods., Tornasol Films, Alia Film, Memfis Film, Film i Vast, CTB Film Co. (International sales: Fortissimo Film Sales, Amsterdam.) Produced by Karl Baumgartner, Sergei Bodrov, Christoph Friedel. Co-produced by Fabienne Fonier, Gerardo Herrero, Mariela Besuievsky, Lars Jonsson, Enzo Porcelli, Tomas Eskilsson, Sergei Selyanov. Executive producers, Wouter Barendrecht, Michael J. Werner. Directed by Sergei Bodrov. Screenplay, Bodrov, Carolyn Cavallero.

Crew

Camera (color), Xavier Perez Grobet; additional photography, Sergei Astakhov; editor, Mette Zeruneith; music, SIG, Giya Kancheli; production designer, Bernd Lepel; art directors, Yosune Lasa, Gregor Mager, Elena Zhukova, Maria Haard; costume designer, Karin Lohr; sound (Dolby Digital EX), Sigurdur Sigurdsson. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing, Venezia 59), Sept. 3, 2002. Running time: 99 MIN. (English dialogue)

With

Lola - Rebecka Liljeberg Groppo - Joachm Krol Misha - Sergei Bodrov Jr. Lou - Keith Allen Marco - Maurizio Donadoni Margarita - Anne-Marie Pisani Anna - Marcela Musso Carmen - Ariadna Gil Ringmaster - Silvio Orlando
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