Cast: Pierrette Robitaille, Romane Bohringer, Marc-Andre Grondin, Marie Brassard
Director: Denis Côté
Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
With Vic + Flow Saw A Bear, French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté (Bestiaire) has crafted an insidious nightmare built around the mundanity of life on the fringes. There's not a lot of plot points or narrative momentum here, just the growing feeling of nasty unease that creeps up along the edges of the frame, made even more palpable by Melissa Lavergne's tribal-infused, disorienting score. The picture is by turns a domestic drama, love story, criminal thriller, and metaphorical/literal manifestation of past mistakes. More than anything, it's a film about how the most comforting geographical locations; in this case a shack in the woods in Quebec, can hold terrifying ghosts drifting slowly into the minds of people broken by life's hardships.
Pierrette Robitaille stars as Victoria, a woman in her sixties who has just been released from prison on parole for an apparent life sentence. Relocating to her invalid uncle's shack deep in the woods, she spends most of her time staring blankly out windows, chain-smoking, and dealing with visits from her parole officer (Marc-Andre Grondin). Things change slightly once her prison lover Florence (Romane Bohringer) shows up, a younger woman with long hair and a wandering eye (she fancies both men and women), who seems content at first but soon grows restless. It's immediately apparent that Vic is dependent on Flo, and that her need for companionship is born out of self-doubt and the fear of loneliness. Flo, on the other hand, is more cosmopolitan and in need of social interaction, not to mention physical attention. The early moments of the film details not only Vic and Flow's relationship, but also periphery characters, such as the shirtless teenage boy (Pier-Luc Funk) who roams around with his flying toy helicopter, and the kid's obstinate father (Olivier Aubin), who shows up bellowing vitriol regarding Vic's handling of her decrepit uncle. Cote frames these early moments as a kind of calm before the billowing storm. Though the forest appears desolate and the air thick with dew, there's a nagging eeriness hanging over every image, as if at any moment, things will shift into an all-out horror show.
Côté gradually teases out tonal shifts that are bold, calculated, and unpredictable in their fastidiousness. The fact that they work as part of a greater whole is testament to both the director's formal control over his compositions as well as Robitaille's hauntingly effective performance. With a weary face streaked with age lines and somber eyes, Robitaille makes Vic a compellingly tragic figure, a woman with a checkered past who longs to reform herself even if that reality is slipping away. No matter where the film goes; from tense character study to a kind of existential thriller, we remain fixated on Robitaille's stoic gaze. This tendency toward upending genre expectations begins to emerge more forcefully once a vivacious neighbor (Marie Brassard) shows up one day to offer Vic gardening tips. Côté uses the appearance of this mysterious stranger not simply as an aside in order to turn his film into a thriller, but rather as a device to complicate Vic and Flow's relationship. Though Vic + Flow Saw A Bear does eventually take a turn into the heart of darkness, at it's core it's about the fragility of human connection. Vic's sobering realization that Flo is bored by the mundanity of rural life and threatening to leave her forms the basis for the film's shift from deadpan realism into a brilliant reworking of crime film tropes in the third act.
Much will be made about the film's shocking ending, but no matter how visceral the final scenes are, it doesn't feel as if Côté is pulling a bait and switch on the audience. In slowly racketing up the tension throughout by using static medium shots, impressive tracking moves, and a blue-toned cinematography palette, Côté has set up certain expectations that he takes great pains to dismantle. Yes, the film does dovetail into sustained brutality, but there's a marked reason for this, both metaphorical and literal. Since so much time has been spent with these characters and their personalities are so well drawn, the sense of terrifying helplessness that overtakes them becomes nearly unbearable. Even if the bear of the title is allegorical, what Vic and Flow see during the final reel is much worse than a lumbering, deadly animal stalking the forest. As tribal drums thunder on the soundtrack, the film takes on the feeling of an impressionistic, grisly fairytale, capped by an astounding single take final shot that sums up Côté's essay on the cyclical nature of violence.