by Matt Levine
Vic and Flo seem like a happy couple at first: we initially see them rolling around mirthfully beneath some sun-soaked bedsheets, with the tranquil sounds of the Quebecois woods in the background. After a lengthy incarceration for undisclosed crimes (one of many elisions in the film’s oblique storyline), the ex-cons move to a secluded cabin owned by Vic’s uncle’s—actually a former sugar shack that the nearby townspeople want reopened—in order to re-acclimate more gently to society. But there’s nothing gentle about their reentry to the world in this fantastical setting, where even mundane jealousies and longings take on the form of menacing enigmas. Vic and Flo’s relationship is soon revealed to contain familiar obstacles—miscommunication, lust, loneliness, desperation, the usual terrain of romantic dramas—but these conflicts are injected into a meandering oddity that’s awash in sexual symbolism.
March 3 & 4
Director: Denis Côté
Producers: Sylvain Corbeil, Stéphanie Morissette
Writer: Denis Côté
Cinematographer: Ian Lagarde
Editor: Nicolas Roy
Cast: Pierrette Robitaille, Romane Bohringer, Marc-André Grondin, Marie Brassard, Georges Molnar, Olivier Aubin, Pier-Luc Funk, Guy Thauvette, Ramon Cespedes
Premiere: February 10, 2013 — Berlin International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: February 7, 2014
US Distributor: Kimstim Films
What is Vic + Flo Saw a Bear—a solemn romance about lesbian ex-cons? A pulpy crime thriller? An ambiguous abstraction from a stylish auteur? The answer, of course, is all of these things and none: the writer-director, Denis Côté (who helmed the jangly 2013 father-daughter psychodrama Curling), embraces genre hybridization, fusing together seemingly incompatible moods and subplots in the hope that something altogether new might emerge. There’s no question that Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is unique, at times cathartic, in its peculiarity; but Côté can’t quite pull of the miraculous versatility required to make something like this soar. Even so, the movie is transfixing to watch and unexpectedly affecting—its passionate mysteries will linger with you long afterwards.
Vic (Pierrette Robitaille) and Flo (Romane Bohringer) may have grown intimate in prison (or so it is suggested), but they find that their new lives of freedom aren’t as liberating as they might have expected. At 61 years old, Vic wants mostly quiet and seclusion. She candidly admits that she hates humanity by this point in her life, with the exception of Flo, who is several decades younger, alluring, restless, and often resentful of Vic’s emotional clinginess. A placid self-exile is not what Flo has in mind at this point in her life; she acts out by venturing to the town bar and hooking up with strangers, making no attempt to hide her bisexuality or her promiscuity from Vic. At first, Vic’s mute and ever-watchful uncle Émile (Georges Molnar) casts an inscrutable eye on the two women, like some kind of powerless demigod observer roaming his property in a motorized wheelchair; yet he’s abruptly shuffled out of the story when he’s sent to hospice care halfway through (we're never told what kind of accident or malady led to his catatonic state).
More significant (and perhaps more threatening) supporting characters wait in the wings. There’s Charlot (Pier-Luc Funk), a perpetually shirtless teenager who has taken care of the paralyzed Émile for years; Charlot’s bitterness towards Vic is likely due to the her habitation of Émile’s cabin and her newfound duties as her uncle’s nurse, though Côté seems to hint at some sexual territorialism as well. Vic’s parole officer, Guillaume (Marc-André Grondin), makes frequent visits to the two women, wearing a kindly demeanor yet never quite removed from his position of punitive overseer. Most bizarre, perhaps, is Vic’s neighbor Marina (Marie Brassard), whom few of the townspeople seem to know exists; a spunky, extroverted gardener, her doting visits to Vic and Flo are soon revealed to have ulterior, deadly motives.
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear disarmingly roams through this capricious story: with the canniness of a sadistic tour guide, Côté hints at subplots and develops themes only to abandon them for new red herrings. Seemingly operating from the assumption that a sort of intuitive spontaneity can lead to bracing originality, Côté deconstructs cinematic and genre form and concocts something altogether more puzzling. From the film’s droll, low-key beginnings, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear ventures into willfully shocking violence and resurrected demons from the past—a juggling act that is often (but not always) successful.
What exactly does this bricolage amount to? At times, Côté seems to be going for a sexual psychodrama riddled with carnal symbolism. It’s no coincidence that two of the characters keeping an ever-diligent eye on Vic and Flo (at least initially) are men—Uncle Émile and Guillaume—whose presence at times denotes a sort of looming patriarchy. The character of Guillaume becomes softened, his personality made more benevolent, around the time he reveals his homosexuality to Vic and Flo—a sexual-associative gambit that’s overly simplistic, though Marc-André Grondin manages to bring a relatable vulnerability to the role. But such gender stereotyping is subverted by the fact the Vic and Flo’s true antagonist is a woman, who seems to take much greater glee in her brutality than any of the male characters in the film. The sexual symbolism of the film often seems muddled, and might ultimately be indecipherable—yet another example of Côté setting up what seems to be a predictable template, only to pull the rug out from under himself (and the audience).
It seems the title is an integral piece of unlocking what the film is trying to do. Literally speaking, Vic and Flo never see a bear—although it’s a few well-placed bear traps that eventually lead to the grisly (yet strangely optimistic) ending. Who is this figurative bear supposed to be? Uncle Émile, an ursine-looking fellow with a flowing white beard, who simply watches from the fringes? The ambiguous character of Marina, a predator who emerges from the woods and targets the two women? More likely, the beast of the title is a metaphor for human baseness—the jealousy and cruelty of which we’re capable—than a flesh-and-blood animal. The bear traps that play an important role in the film’s climax amount to symbols for the ways in which we confine ourselves, constructing the psychological cages that continue to imprison us psychologically.
It’s possible I’m giving Côté too much credit: maybe Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is simply a screenwriting lark, an experiment in how intuitive plotting and seemingly incompatible shifts in mood and character can lead to a formalist experience. Even if this is true, the film is still worth watching: impeccably shot by Ian Lagarde, with often static compositions and a bright, earthy color palette, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is ravishing stylistically, hypnotizing the audience and ensuring our engrossment even when the story becomes nonsensical. Only in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s movies does imagery of swaying trees and lush foliage convey similarly mysterious passions. But I think the movie is much more than a prankster’s abstraction; the visual motifs and masterfully disjunctive tone are too complex to be completely empty. Côté has said in interviews that he’s interested in displacement and the fringes of society, and at the very least his latest film conveys the delirium of adjusting to a radically new life in an alien setting. Although it’s obscured by some wild peculiarities, the film’s underlying theme—of relationships becoming endangered by unavoidable past traumas—rings true.
Côté’s messy plotting and visual non-sequiturs (such as images of locales to which we have not yet been introduced) are so grandiose that the dramatic components—especially Vic and Flo’s relationship—seem to suffer in comparison. Placed next to ravishingly cryptic imagery and soundscapes, the scenes in which the two women argue tersely, or in which Flo entices and sexually exploits the men who frequent the village bar, can seem unconvincing. Yet almost in spite of itself, the film convinces us of the tenderness they used to share, thanks largely to confident, subtle performances by Pierrette Robitaille and Romane Bohringer. Vic + Flo Saw a Bear at times threatens to become cold and self-satisfied, but the two actresses, working compatibly with Côté’s capricious unpredictability, turn Vic and Flo into something resembling two real people. A serene visit to a nearby aquarium (during which Vic and Flo are accompanied by the boyish Guillaume) is surprisingly heartfelt, and the fable-like ending of the film is striking partially because Vic and Flo achieve, at last, some kind of harmony.
Critics might complain (and many have) that the discordant shifts in genre and narrative implode under themselves, and that Côté might have made a strong relationship drama or a compelling and slightly surreal thriller, rather than defeating both causes by mashing them abrasively together. But I couldn’t disagree more. Genres are convenient labels whereby distributors market their products and critics structure reviews, but more often than not they limit an artist’s creativity, shoving their work into a pre-fabricated box of conventions and expectations. Vic + Flo Saw a Bear may be unwieldy in its messiness, but it’s also transfixing in the bold risks it takes; for viewers who don’t mind if their movies are odd and unclassifiable, it’s an exhilarating and ultimately powerful experience. The film’s greatest flaw may be that it’s trying to achieve too much with too little self-control—but of all the potential weaknesses that movies can suffer from, this one might actually be worthy of our commendation.