Land of the Bears (Terre des ours): Film Review

Igor Shpilenok/Les Films en vrac
A 3D nature documentary that offers gorgeous sights but not a lot of insight.

French director Guillaume Vincent's nature documentary about brown bears, shot on Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East, is narrated by Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard.

PARIS -- French actress Marion Cotillard and several 1,400-pound Russian brown bears share top billing in Land of the Bears (Terre des ours), director Guillaume Vincent’s French wildlife documentary about the eponymous ursine mammals that was shot on Kamchatka Peninsula (which borders the Pacific) and is narrated by the Oscar-winning star in her native tongue.

Reportedly the first nature doc shot with 3D cameras -- with help from another ecology-minded Oscar winner, James Cameron, whose Cameron Pace Group co-produced -- Land of the Bears is a gorgeous immersion into the natural beauties of the sparsely populated Kamchatka region, which is marbled with volcanoes, creeks and rivers and home to not only the world’s largest brown bear population but also, in summer, the world’s largest salmon population that sustains it.

But pretty pictures alone do not a good movie make and Vincent’s approach is often simply too classical -- such as the reliance on the seasons for its narrative chronology -- or repetitive, with the bears’ reliance on their main food source, salmon, repeated so often in the voice-over it could inspire some fishy drinking games. Nonetheless, the idea of a 3D nature film and, in France, the name of Cotillard should help put some untailed bums in seats.

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Not a human is in sight for the film’s duration and most of the images were shot outdoors, with the bears in their natural environment. It is somewhat odd, then, that Land opens at the tail end of winter in a burrow that, judging by the end titles, was constructed for the film. Though it gives Vincent the possibility to start with the bears during the depths of the extremely severe, almost eight-month Kamchatka winter, these early scenes add little, as the featured mother and its two cubs aren’t even the focus of the early going, which instead, once the cameras venture outside, spotlights a 4-year-old bear that has just survived his first winter alone but that, because it hadn’t eaten enough the previous summer, woke up from its hibernation-like lethargy too early and in desperate need of food.

The young adult male manages to find its way to the Valley of Geysers, a striking landscape of white vapors and shy green leaves where countless hot springs ensure that spring arrives early every year. The furry protagonist manages to run into its sister there -- no word on how the crew managed to figure out the family relations -- and the film finally contrasts the behavior of the young, newly independent siblings with that of the mother and her cubs and a solitary, 12-year-old male.

While the differences between them help paint a fuller picture of the behavior of the brown bears, the juxtapositions of Vincent and editor Vincent Schmitt often feel didactic more than organic. The voice-over goes back and forth between being rigidly educational (the siblings “aren’t made for living together, it’s the law of their species”) and waxing faux-poetic (bears are a “blend of might and mildness”). Thankfully, the voice-over doesn’t anthropomorphize the bears too much, though Cotillard doesn’t manage to always stay neutral either, such as when she gives the scientific word “reproduce” an almost erotic lilt.

The film moves away from the Kamchatka peninsula to introduce the salmon that serves as the main food source over just a couple of summer months, when they return to the rivers where they were born from the Pacific, and it’s here that Land grows increasingly repetitive and flat, with the narration adding nothing new anymore and images of bears hunting for fish in the streams observed from what feels like every possible angle -- including underwater, in some rare, medium-quality footage.

Otherwise, the film looks and sounds great, with cinematographer Lionel Jan Kerguistel using both stationary and mobile cameras, including some attached to helium balloons, to get fantastic shots without disturbing the animals.

Opens: Feb. 26 (in France)

Production companies: Les Films en vrac, Studio 37 Orange, Nature Pictures, Cameron Pace Group

Narrator: Marion Cotillard

Director: Guillaume Vincent

Screenwriter: Yves Paccalet, Guillaume Vincent

Producers: François de Carsalade Du Pont, Thierry Commissionat, Benoit Tschieret, Guillaume Vincent

Director of photography: Lionel Jan Kerguistel

Music: Simin Caby, Fabien Cali 

Editor: Vincent Schmitt

Sales: Kinology / Orange Studio

No rating, 87 minutes.

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