Hardly a Bare Tale
As a reading of, say, Collodi’s original Pinocchio will substantiate, folk and fairy stories have been bowdlerized and sugar-coated today, supposedly to protect the child in us all. Deodorized, defanged and declawed, animals are cuddly, neutered, talking prodigies. Warty witches, warlocks and goblins are generally not even as scary as Disney’s once were, and trackless Wald and werewolves and bears – and their protean cousin the vampire – are unfashionable or else reduced to the stock of mindless techni-violence and special effects.
With Russian irony and sensibility, however, Sergei Bodrov’s Bear’s Kiss merges two worlds usually prettified for "children" – those of the tamed and form-changing animal, and of the circus – into a flawed but effective dark parable of loneliness and love. The Big Top here is sequined flashing color. In the opening minutes, it enthralls awed childlike spectators in cosmopolitan St. Petersburg. But the Fellini-esque circus family is torn by personal animosities, jealousy, financial concerns, neuroses and alcohol. And the animals are beautiful but temperamental and dangerous; as in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Bear, theirs can be a world of instinct for survival, as much of pure violence as of pure love.
Lola (Rebecka Liljeberg) has grown up with the traveling circus, where her beautiful mother is the star trapize artist and her physically and emotionally broken father once a motorcycle daredevil. Lacking confidence in her own appearance and talents, within a painful, short time the teenager intuits that Marco (Maurizio Donadoni) is not her real father and that Carmen (Ariadna Gil) literally found her as a baby abandoned "on the steps of my trailer." Depressed nearly to breakdown by her life and loves, Carmen simply leaves; neck-braced Marco drinks even more heavily; and Lola withdraws from human contact to turn increasingly to Misha, the year-old bear she has raised from a cub. "You’re my guy," she coos, "do you know that? My one and only."
But Misha – captured on frozen tundra when savage Asian hunters kill its dam – is no ordinary bruin. In what initially seem dream sequences, he metamorphoses into a naked, blue-eyed, dark young man (Sergei Bodrov, Jr.) whose frequent "shape-shifts" gradually become reality. As the circus decays and travels, the two youngsters walk hand-in-hand through streets in Sweden, Germany and Spain -- seemingly like any other lovers.
There is some meandering before the conflict gels, though perhaps this is meant to parallel the circus as well as the hormonal bounces of the pouty-faced girl-woman and her beau. In the end, this variation on the princess and her frog-prince (splattered against a wall, by the way, not kissed, in its original version) manages to portray the uncertainties of first love. Along the way, it also touches such themes as the beast in man and vice versa, the conflicting calls of the wild and of society, and the casually accepted coexistence of the mundane and the magical.
Just as alcohol, lust and greed may bring out the beast, despite many full moons, bear-man changes often occur at any time, for no discernible reason. This shifting and therefore unreliable nature of man and of life is mirrored in recurring images of rippled moving water: rivers, streams, canals, seas and oceans, ponds and groundwater. And the film’s emotional and folkloric base is well served by Giya Kancheli’s score, modern and at the same time arising in traditional Eastern European and Spanish Gypsy motifs. Logical to both Russia and a circus, the broad mix of nationalities and ethnic types brings a universality to the tale, along with a rich language not heard elsewhere – mostly though not exclusively a multi-accented English.
If the ending – again water and woods – returns full circle to the beginning and has become a bit predictable and happy fairy tale-ish, it is nevertheless satisfying; any other would have been unbearably maudlin. Real, original folk tales are somber and frightening, to be sure, but true love is not to be denied.
(Released by Intercinema Art Agency; not rated by MPAA.)