The Ways in Which I’d Like to Get Attacked By a Bear
Steven Church on Ecstatic Violence and Jouissance
The following essay appears in Steven Church’s essay collection, One with the Tiger, from Soft Skull.
The Oscar Award-winning star of the 2015 film, The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio is famous for his dedication to his craft of pretending to be someone else. He works extremely hard to become another person, to internalize his reality. As a “method actor,” DiCaprio tries to immerse himself as much as possible in the subjective reality of his characters. For the famously demanding director, Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant, this meant that DiCaprio did everything he could to become the widower father, hunter, trapper, guide, and bear-attack survivor, Hugh Glass, embodying the character in a way that many have called “masterful.” It was a performance that required a lot of physical sacrifice. And a lot of grunting, festering wounds, and visible suffering. DiCaprio not only camped out in sub-zero temperatures and had to repeatedly dive into an ice-cold river wearing a bear-skin coat, he also ate raw bison liver and, according to some (perhaps apocryphal) reports, he even crawled inside a dead horse.
DiCaprio himself has said many times that he and the entire cast regularly risked hypothermia while filming in temperatures as cold as -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Hands became numb. Equipment froze up and stopped working. They felt the elements, suffered for the art. DiCaprio did not, however, subject himself to an actual bear attack; but you get the sense, watching the film, that were Leo called upon to answer questions about what it was like to be attacked by a bear, he could answer them honestly and exhaustively. He could tell you exactly what it felt like, and you would believe every word he said.
The now infamous bear attack sequence in The Revenant takes about five minutes of screen time. It begins slowly as DiCaprio’s character, Glass sets off alone in the forest, scouting a trail for the hunting party he’s guiding. It’s early morning, just after dawn, and the light is perfect. Trees tower overhead, swaying silver and black against a gray-blue sky. The sound here goes ambient and, at first, all you hear are twittering birds, the staccato knocking of woodpecker, and the white noise of wind blowing through the treetops. Glass’s boots crunch through the brush.
He hears something, maybe. You’re not sure at first what it could be. The group was being tracked and hunted by a Pawnee chief searching for his kidnapped daughter, and they were on the run. Perhaps they’ve found him.
Glass pulls his hood down and stuffs a wad of chewing tobacco in his lip. There’s something out there. But you can’t see anything. All you hear is Glass’s breathing.
Or is that something else breathing?
You hear this deeper and more guttural sound, a huffing breath that doesn’t seem human. It sounds bigger, more animal, and it pulses beneath the images on screen like a rumbling bass line that builds and builds. You realize subconsciously that you’re listening to the bear. Your first fear is conditioned by this sound, by the bear’s amplified breath. And it is a deep fear, one that you feel in your own chest. There is no music, no soundtrack, just the bear breathing.
Two mewling bear cubs appear on screen, scrambling through the dense undergrowth. Glass raises his rifle; and just as he turns around to look for the mother bear, we see her, over his right shoulder. She rises up on her hind legs, bellows an angry cry, and looks straight at Glass, who stands between her and her cubs. She drops to the ground and charges fast in a mad growling rush. Glass doesn’t even have time to turn around before he is slammed into a tree. The massive bear, weighing at least 400 pounds, rolls over Glass like a quivering wave of brown fur and teeth and claws; and the noise, the huffing and growling, the screaming, washes over you, pins you to your chair, and then recedes, leaving pools of silence where you know more danger is lurking.
At one point in the midst of the attack, the bear, standing on DiCaprio’s body, leans in close to his face, almost nuzzling him and sniffing at his neck. Two or three times the bear pauses for these moments of odd intimacy that look a lot to you like mercy mixed with curiosity; and the second time, she actually uses her head to roll DiCaprio over on his back before licking at his bloodied face in an almost tender way.
The camera gets so close to one of these moments that the bear’s hot breath fogs up the lens, a somewhat risky choice in the scene because it breaks the spell by reminding you that this attack isn’t “real,” that it is being performed and filmed, probably computer generated; but it is also a craft choice which immerses you in the scene such that you feel the bear’s breath on your face. You feel your own vision fog. You become a sentient camera lens. And you can’t deny that you feel something for this bear—an intense level of emotion for this CGI creation—that seems inappropriate.
The bear is just trying to protect her children. At one point, she even pauses the attack to check on the cubs and make sure they’re safe before resuming her mauling of Glass. I know the feeling. She’s just doing what any parent would do. But she does it with such power, such strength and rage, and such commitment to savagery, part of me has to admire her. Part of me wants to be her. And to be Glass at the same time.
She thrashes DiCaprio around as if he is a toy, ripping at his flesh, and pounding on his back with her paws, stomping him into the dirt. The two of them embrace again and again in this repeated act of violent collision, and it seems impossible that either of them will survive to see their children.
When she’s been shot and mortally wounded, the bear charges, reluctantly, almost out of obligation, and DiCaprio plunges his long knife into the bear’s side, shoving the blade up into her heart or some other vital organ. Blood pours from her wounds, the two of them tumble down an embankment, and you feel a mixture of relief and sadness. It’s over now. Or it’s just beginning. And you feel your breath caught up in the top of your throat; you have to remind yourself to let it out. You have to convince yourself that it’s safe to breathe again.
The whole attack doesn’t last long, but it feels like forever. And I realized that, as I watched it in the theater, I’d pitched forward in my seat, my hands gripping the hand-rests like they were the safety bar on a roller coaster; and I made little mouth noises, as if I was witnessing the attack live. When it was over, I turned to my girlfriend and mouthed the words, “Holy shit.”
It sounds crazy to say this, but not only did I want to watch the attack again and again (and I have since), but part of me wanted to experience it firsthand. The cinematography and sound editing, the acting and special effects, all made it feel so real, so immediate and visceral, I wanted to jump into the scene. I wanted to feel the bear’s hot breath on my neck. I wanted to smell the deep woodsy stink of the bear’s coarse fur and its hot blood spilling over me. I wanted that kind of intense ecstatic experience—which is not necessarily to say that I wanted to die or even be mortally wounded. I wasn’t remotely suicidal. I just wanted to be close to the terror, to feel the energy of those precious moments. My girlfriend just wanted the scene to end. At one point, she turned away from the screen, toward me, and I could offer her no solace. I couldn’t break my focus.
I realize that these do not sound like the thoughts of a rational person. These should not be the thoughts of an overweight writer, a classroom volunteer, a professor and member of professional organizations who has bad knees and wears sweatpants a good part of every day. These are not thoughts I even entirely understand. But I have them and I cannot deny their existence; at least part of what I’m doing here is trying to normalize these thoughts and complicate the stories we tell about this kind of thinking and this urge to witness.
Sure, the attack scene in The Revenant is gruesome, savage, and terrifying—the sort of film scene that might make some people afraid to go into the woods in the same way that Jaws made people afraid of the ocean. In many ways the star of this particular scene is the bear, while DiCaprio gets the rest of the movie to shine. The scene is also strangely intimate. Personal, even. Seductive, mythical, and spiritual in its implications.
It’s so visceral, so immediate and intense that it almost feels surreal. It is an impossibly artful creation of a bear attack that I will remember forever, catalogued into the archive of iconic, can’t-forget movie scenes. Even though I know it’s not true, I want to believe that this attack actually happened and that I actually witnessed the sublime violence; and at least part of this is because I believe the scene speaks to a very real and very human compulsion toward animal savagery. It speaks to the urge that many of us feel to have—or at least to witness—such ecstatic experiences. It’s that urge, however taboo, to leap into an encounter with a force beyond our control, perhaps even beyond our comprehension.
I’m not surprised that, in response to this scene and the on-screen connection shared between DiCaprio and the bear, that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and comedian Kevin Hart rapped about it at the MTV Movie Awards. Surrounded by backup dancers in bear costumes, the co-hosts rhymed about other 2016 movies, but returned each time to the chorus, “You’ll always remember where you were . . . when LEO GOT FUCKED BY A BEAR!”
It’s funny. Other minor celebrities stand up to join the fun, reciting their own memory of where they were when LEO GOT FUCKED BY A BEAR, and everyone laughs. It’s quite a show. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube. But here’s the thing: I believe the intimacy of this scene scares the average person more than the violence or gore, more than the undeniable terror of being attacked by a bear. They make weirdly homophobic jokes and perform this ridiculous rap with the backup dancers because, if they’re being honest, The Rock and Kevin Hart and all the others also want to be “fucked” by a bear.
OK, so what they secretly, desperately desire—what many of us want—is perhaps less like being violently raped by an apex predator and more akin to the French concept of jouissance, which implies a kind of ecstatic experience, a mixture of pleasure and pain that shatters the self and, thus, provides an opportunity to reassemble oneself. It’s kind of like being fucked existentially, emotionally and intellectually, perhaps also physically. It’s not a death drive, no Thanatos, or suicide ideation, but it is perhaps a drive to be destroyed or disassembled and then re-made again. It’s a desire to be fucked to pieces and then to be remade.
I think this destruction and rebuilding of the self is also at the heart of the audience’s experience of the bear attack scene in The Revenant. To be clear, I’m not arguing necessarily that Hugh Glass felt what we’d call pleasure as he was being brutally mauled by a grizzly bear; but I am suggesting that this is what we, as audience members (and the Academy Award judges), feel when we watch Leonardo DiCaprio being attacked—pleasure mixed with pain and repulsion. This ecstatic jouissance is what tingles through our bodies as we pause, rewind, and replay the scene over and over again. This is what made me what to jump into the scene. This jouissance is what frightened the writers of the rap into calling it “fucking,” because there is something vaguely pornographic or at least voyeuristic about it; and you feel a little dirty for watching. It scares us on a deeply existential level that is different from what we feel in a horror movie.
The bear, though behaving monstrously, does not necessarily come across as a monster, not in the same way that the shark did in Jaws or that some horror movie killer might scare us. She is just a bear being a bear, a mother protecting her cubs. She becomes both beast and phenomena, both animal and mythic mother. She is the hunted, not the hunter in this story; and the hunters are all men, most of them weak, vile, or repulsive in some way. She is, in fact, one of the few female characters in the whole film, and perhaps one of the more sympathetic ones. This bear is not a villain; that role reserved for Tom Hardy’s character, Fitzgerald. She didn’t want or deserve this violence. This mother bear—this sublime and massive maternal creature—relied on savagery as protection. When your children are threatened, you do what you have to do. You don’t start the fight, but you finish it. You fuck up some asshole who gets between you and your kids.
At the end of the scene, the sow lays there dead, her thick brown mass sprawled out on top of DiCaprio’s mangled body, and her cubs are now left without a mother and a protector. The cubs’ cries echo in the forest. The men pull her great mass off of Glass and she rolls over and flops onto her back, her head tilted down toward the camera; and looking into her lifeless eyes, I can’t help but feel sorry for her. I don’t want her to die, but I know she has to for the sake of the movie. I know that it makes a better story if the monster dies and the hero survives. It makes the story a tragedy, a story of survival against great odds. But part of me wants the typical horror movie trope where the bear rises from the dead, lets out a monstrous roar, and savagely mauls three or four other men before finally dying at Glass’s hand. I think they could have given her that much of a stage exit.