Smarter Than the Average Bear

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Vic + Flo ont vu un ours)
(Canada, 95 min)
Written and directed by Denis Côté
Starring: Pierrette Robitaille, Romane Bohringer, Marc-André Grondin, Marie Brassard.
Romane Bohringer as Flo (left) and  Pierrette Robitaille as Vic (right).
Photo by: Yannick Grandmont
Denis Côté is one weird dude. The Québécois auteur is quickly becoming one of the most original and distinct voices in Canadian cinema. After the surreal madness of Curling and the unique portraiture of Bestiaire comes the noir-ish head-scratcher Vic + Flo Saw a Bear. Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, which boasts a hilariously misleading title since Vic and Flo don’t even see a bear (or do they?), is art-house nonsense in its finest form. Côté’s film doesn’t really make much sense in the present tense of the film experience, but it has one hell of a finale. Vic + Flo is smarter than the average bear.

“I’m old enough to know that I don’t like people,” says Vic to her younger girlfriend, Flo. Vic is a sixty-something ex-con on parole. She’s on the tail end of a life sentence—the film never tells the audience what for—and she decides to settle in her uncle’s old sugar shack in rural Quebec. It’s the perfect place for someone who doesn’t like people, which might also explain the life sentence, as it’s a quiet refuge in the boonies.

Vic, played by the Melissa Leo-ish Pierrette Robitaille, is not the most charismatic person with whom one could spend ninety-five minutes. She’s socially inept, as one expects from someone who has been removed from society for years, as she revisits her now-paralyzed uncle (Georges Molnar). She shouts at him as if her were an imbecile and she pays him little heed as she shacks up in his place and allows the constantly shirtless neighbourboy to take care of him instead while she freeloads.

Flo, Vic’s girlfriend from the slammer, wanders into the backwoods hideaway just when Vic seems to be getting tired of puttering around on a golf cart and howling into the forest. (It’s a Denis Côté film, remember?) Flo, played by Romane Bohringer, who looks like Charlotte Gainsbourg if she worked in a chip wagon and smoked two packs a day, isn’t nearly as hardened and reclusive as Vic is. She is also considerably younger and, unfortunately, considerably more reckless.

Robitaille and Bohringer give a pair of fine performances as the two oddball ex-cons. Robitaille is especially good in bringing out a thread of humanity underlying Vic’s tired cynicism and coldness. Vic is a woman who wants to do better in life, but lacks the sense of how to do it. She also seems to know that whatever she does will be too little and come too late to make any sort of atonement for what she’s done. She has nobody to atone for, either, so all she can do is make things best for herself and Flo.

Vic gardens and Flo picks up men at the local dive during the meandering first half of the film. Côté sets up an enigmatic little simmer as Vic and Flo do anything and everything but see a bear during the aimless rime that goes by in their secluded sugar shack. Amusing sights of carefree locals whipping around the track in their Go Carts or jogging by the shack as Flo squats by the road like a Neanderthal add some quirky charm and a sense of the mundane. (The locals are eerily familiar to the skateboarding kids who coloured the background of Sarah Prefers to Run, yet the contrast in the similar use of space and action shows Côté’s ingenuity with tone.) The tension mounts ever so slowly as things stop being nice and pretty for Vic and Flo. Vic’s amicable parole officer, Guillaume (Marc-André Grondin, giving a fun and dorky performance), seems content with the lifer’s progress when she sets up camp at her uncle’s, but he becomes less impressed when the neighbour’s remove said uncle due to neglect and when Flo starts running her mouth off that his routine trips are messing with her shit.

Another friendly local makes the acquaintance of Vic (but not Flo). Marina St. Jean (played by Marie Brassard in an outstanding supporting turn) is an outgoing city worker who uses the property of the sugar shack as a shortcut for her commute to work. Marina takes an interest in Vic’s garden during her first visit and offers to help Vic tend to her plants in exchange for letting her drive across the property. She’s pretty forward, Marina. Flirty even. Maybe she’ll change Vic’s attitude should Flo become restless.

Then something happens that totally justifies why Vic doesn’t like people. Vic + Flo takes an ominous turn as one of the characters is revealed to be something else. A great sense of impending doom saturates the inky Vic + Flo, lensed beautifully by DP Ian Lagarde, as the droll weirdness of the film evolves into something dark and sinister, and the brilliantly portentous deep chords in the score by Melissa Lavergne make the calm, deserted woods around the sugar shack seem like the least inviting place on Earth. Déliverance, perhaps?

Just when it seems as if Vic + Flo could be going nowhere and doing nothing, though, Côté jolts the film alive with a masterful reveal. Vic + Flo Saw a Bear sends the pot flying off the stove when the slow burn of its inscrutable simmer explodes into something deadly. It’s a grotesquely violent and morbid finale, and an effective one at that.

Vic and Flo seem like a pair of world-weary women who know throughout the film that they’re never going to find any kind of peace while holing out in the sugar shack. There’s no escaping the life they had before. The couple, Vic especially, seems to grasp that there is no way that their fairy tale romance can end well. Côté, however, gives this subversive love story its own taste for happily ever after with the poignant freedom that meets the friends at the end. The closer of Vic + Flo is beautifully poetic in its own sinister and messed up kind of way.

Rating: ★★★½  (out of ★★★★★)

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne Nov. 27 – 30.
It is currently screening in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox.