A Practically Impossible Friendship: The 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition of 'The Bear'

Jean-Jacques Annaud's classic naturalist dramatization of a "practically impossible friendship" between two bears gets a visual update but retains all its original emotion.

The Bear

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Cast: Bart the Bear, Youk the Bear, Tchéky Karyo, Jack Wallace
Distributor: Shout Factory
US Release Date: 2015-09-29

I first watched The Bear ten years ago in the tradition of so many generations of film initiates: lying on someone’s living room floor, in an altered state, watching a bootleg copy. I was young enough that I still had an emotional proximity to the Disney wildlife classics of my childhood, even if I didn’t have them consciously in mind as I followed the film’s young cub hero through the rites of passage shared by all sentient creatures: the loss of our parents, the establishment of our own relationships, the discovery of our independence. Though there are resonances between it and its cartoon predecessors (Bambi being the most notable), Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Bear stands out as perhaps the definitive wildlife drama.

Set in 19th century British Columbia, The Bear is a story about a “practically impossible friendship” between an orphaned bear cub and a bachelor grizzly being pursued by trophy hunters. The two grow closer as they face increasingly dangerous obstacles to their passage, from steep mountain inclines to lethally quick pumas. However, they share pleasures, too, as the cub experiments with magic mushrooms and his older friend models the (ahem) birds and the bees. What results is a picture of nature as being arbitrary and ambivalent but just; to borrow from another nature classic, it’s all just part of the “circle of life”.

What does come across as gratuitous and horrifying is the proliferation of death that results from the determination of the trophy hunters to catch their prey. Horses and hunting dogs are maimed and killed, and the captured bear cub is teased and ridiculed. The decadence of the trophy hunt and the perverse logic that drives it comes to an emotional peak in the image of the young cub sleeping in a pile of his fellows’ furs—the many remnants of previous hunts. Put simply, this is a film with a clear allegiance to the emotional lives of animals, though it doesn’t take a pessimistic view of humanity either, as one gesture of mercy is repaid with another.

The Bear imagines an idealistic world in which recognition between man and beast is possible, but even the world of the film is not perfect. There are some issues with the mechanisms used to represent the bears. They are clearly anthropomorphized, and our identification with them is dependent upon our ability to project human motivations and feelings onto their very meticulously staged behavior. This humanization of the bears is taken to its most extreme in the soundtrack, where human utterances are often mixed in with the bears’ natural vocalizations to provide identifiable experiences and emotions. Sometimes this can seem campy, as in the orgasmic rise and fall of mating bear grunts, clearly intended to suggest human sexual experience.

However, when it’s believable, the mix of human and animal is uncanny and unsettling; it, like the larger project of the film, blurs the mental distinctions that we make between us and our wilder friends. Indeed, that we often feel that animals should be “one of us” raises some questions about the viability of a larger project of cohabitation toward which the film seems to be gesturing, but ultimately, I don't think that it undermines the project to any great extent. Rather, it provides a place from which conversations about conservation, cohabitation, and game hunting can proceed.

Formally, The Bear still packs all of the punch that it did 25 years ago. The cinematography is beautiful, but there are very special moments when it borders on the sublime, as in the famous confrontation between the hunter and his prey. Another striking scene involves the young bear cub floating downriver on a piece of log while a puma races alongside him on shore. Their meeting is so elegantly choreographed and executed that one forgets they are watching live, wild (though trained) animals rather than professional actors. The distinctive minimal soundtrack and almost complete lack of dialogue almost go unnoticed, so arresting are the visuals. The balance between the two is masterfully done.

The importance of editing in the creation of The Bear would be apparent to a savvy viewer even if it hadn’t been nominated for an Academy Award (it won a César for Best Director), but the extent to which the film was truly constructed in post-production is made clear by the making-of documentary included in the DVD’s bonus features. The featurette, which is unfortunately the only bonus feature aside from an original trailer, is at least 51 minutes long, and it details all the aspects of shooting at which one wonders when watching the final product. How did they get those bears to do that? How did they get it to sound like this? Is that real? The answers are, respectively: very carefully, there was no live sound, and it’s almost all real.

The 25th Anniversary Blu-ray Collector’s Edition of The Bear has all the visual charms of earlier editions with the added drama of high-definition rendering. There really is no way to describe the mise-en-scène of The Bear as anything other than majestic. Filmed primarily in the Dolomite mountain range in northeastern Italy, the film abounds in the kinds of arresting visual landscapes for which high-definition was made. The transfer has preserved the distinctive color profile of the film without the loss of contrast that often accompanies many Blu-ray releases of films of the same period.

The Bear does show its age in its special effects, though. Claymation dream sequences and animatronic bear doubles are less than flattering in the new ultra-precise rendering, but their retro charm can be part of the film’s appeal if one is a generous viewer and provides space for the affective dimensions of the film to really work their magic.

Thinking back to my last viewing of The Bear, it's clear what pleasures the film offered me in my naivety and, well, mental state. But with so much time between then and now, I was very surprised to find that in my sobriety and cynicism, it had just as profound—though different—pleasures in store for me. I have seen a bit more of the world, had my relationships with my parents and caretakers change, and had to find my independence. For viewers who saw the film in its original release as children or young adults, I expect revisiting it in Blu-ray will have much the same effect. The Bear is just one of those films that, I think (and hope), will stick with us.


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