The Nip of the North

Two Lovers and a Bear
(Canada, 96 min.)
Written and directed by Kim Nguyen
Starring: Tatiana Maslany, Dane DeHaan, Gordon Pinsent, John Ralston
Courtesy eOne Films

“Two lovers walk into a bar,” says Lucy (Tatiana Maslany) during an intimate moment of Two Lovers and the Bear. Lucy offers this rambling joke that includes a bear, an octopus, and a crapload of word vomit, and while one cannot remember the point or punch line of her story, this pause in Two Lovers and a Bear is the moment in which the film all comes together. This elusive new drama from Oscar nominee Kim Nguyen (War Witch) is an odd little octopus. Like Lucy’s joke, it takes a leisurely pace to arrive at its destination and when it hits home, one doesn’t quite understand what just surmised, but it’s uniquely satisfying. It’s a cold and enigmatic film that envelops the viewer like a big ghostly bear hug.

Nguyen is a master of ambiguity and Two Lovers and a Bear is an unsettling film that haunts long after its unexpected finale. Central to the power, tone, and scope of the film is Nguyen’s uncanny use of the Nunavut setting as the natural and unnatural elements of the landscape create an ominous no man’s land. Two Lovers and a Bear, like Zacharias Kunuk’s Maliglutit, uses the expansive and seemingly endless plains of snow and ice to create a final frontier, or the end or the world, as Lucy and her lover Roman (Dane DeHaan) brave the elements and traverse kilometres of barren ice and snow to realise their love.

Nguyen and DP Nicholas Bolduc (Enemy) harness the fleeting presence of the sun to mirror the tempest of emotions that run through Lucy and Roman’s relationship. Lucy decides it’s time to leave the arctic, yet finds her past catching up with her as the ghost of her father (John Ralston) chases her to the furthest limits of the land that she can find. Similarly, the shifting tones and fluctuations in brightness and balance add to the film’s air of eerie uncertainty. The pull of the icy arctic landscape is strong, powerful, wild, threatening, and freeing.

The film uses the Nunavut setting as an omnipresent character as the majority of the film plays out in the frigid exteriors. Two Lovers and a Bear wraps the story of Lucy and Roman within the tale of the greater town (albeit a very small greater town) that lives around them. Nunavut is a land where the strong survive, as the film shows with the bookended images of death, and it’s a place where cultures collide. Everyday life for the Inuit is a fight for survival for unacclimatised southerners. It’s a land where tradition endures in spite of invasive forces, yet the powers crawling in from all corners of the earth see it as their territory to pillage and plunder. Just look at the truly spectacular scene in which Lucy and Roman careen their snowmobiles around the arctic landfill. Pile upon pile of frozen trash creates a maze as a myriad of the world’s problems sit tossed up north where they’re out of sight and out of mind.  
It’s no secret that many southerners living up north are running from something, and Lucy’s problem struggles to escape the false comfort she finds in the arctic. Haunting appearances by her father punctuate the film startlingly as an old man lumbers towards her like Freddie Kruger or Donald Trump in a presidential debate. The film cuts quickly and violently from these fleeting images. Lucy’s fear is a mystery and while the imminent danger is palpable, Nguyen and Maslany refuse to let the viewer into Lucy’s mind until the film’s final surprising moments.

The Orphan Black star is excellent as Lucy, a survivor of abuse who struggles to shake the trauma of her past. Maslany gives her best film performance yet in Two Lovers and a Bear as she allows Lucy’s fears and anxieties overwhelm her strength when the past catches up with her and she loses her confidence. Lucy hasn’t had an easy life and Maslany conveys the emotional scars that the runaway carries despite her often-stoic shell. As Roman, DeHaan is wan and subtle, embodying Roman’s sickly restlessness and rootlessness. Like Lucy, his escape from his troubles only brings a new kind of inner grief.

The film’s final act brings the lovers to an abandoned bunker. Situated a quick ride past the largest snowdrift, this old dusty place is a relic of Canadian wastefulness. Nguyen uses the location, replete with thick layers of dusty and unwanted corned beef, to create deep and dark abyss where Lucy confronts her ghosts. The use of the location is unexpectedly suspenseful as Nguyen injects elements of the speculative genres into an otherwise chillingly realistic film.

Then of course, there’s the bear. Voiced by Canadian icon Gordon Pinsent, this friendly polar bear makes three visits like a sage from old mythology. He speaks only to Roman, and only Roman understands him, and this bear adds to the film’s abstract mysteriousness. Is Roman crazy? Is the bear real? The only tangible answer is that the bear puts the film on the level of a myth.

Canadians mythologise the North and romanticise its escapist character while forgetting the harshness of the natural environment and the man-made consequences that make life up afar such a struggle. Two Lovers and a Bear creates a tragic fable that intimately connects the lovers with the unfamiliar land and the passion that consumes them. It’s as revitalising as the nip of the North.

Two Lovers and a Bear is now playing in limited release.