There are no bears in Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, but the grizzly connotations that the film’s otherwise fairytale-like title carries are palpable throughout. Quebecois writer-director Denis Côté’s Berlinale prize-winner is a tough-edged anti-thriller, which racks up tension and intrigue with expert formal control as well as pointedly idiosyncratic performances from its small but impressive cast.
Recently released from prison, Vic Champagne (Pierrette Robitaille) arrives at the remote Kirkdale home of her paralysed uncle, where she dismisses the young boy caring for him there and resumes a relationship with her lover Florence (Romane Bohringer), who is also an ex-con. In between visits from her young, by-the-book parole officer Guillaume (Marc-André Grondin), Vic lives out a low-key routine, determined to stay out of further trouble. “I’m old enough to know that I hate people,” she snarls when Flo suggests they trek into town. Unbeknownst to Vic, however, Flo is pursuing dalliances with men she picks up at the local boozer; and then a friendly neighbour (Marie Brassard) introduces herself to Vic, going under one name when, we see, she might in fact be called another…
Ellipses abound. Vic + Flo is on one level an A-to-B minimalist thriller with comic undertones, but darker energies come forth and gradually unsettle proceedings, as when the ominous beat of a non-diegetic timpani drum lends menace to otherwise undramatic moments. This deadpan threat, present in images such as that in which Vic’s new friendly neighbour hovers over Flo while the latter sleeps in a hammock, grows to linger over incidents like a heavy fog. Unusual for a film playing off the cabin in the woods trope, Côté’s action unfolds for the most part in daylight hours, which means he and DoP Ian Lagarde can imbue a distinct visual palette of metallic, purgatorial greys. Rather than heighten tensions by setting scenes at night, the film seems all the more mysterious and sinister for taking place in the open.
The general lawlessness of this rural milieu is magnified further by Guillaume, an ultimately nice chap whose straightfaced approach to his profession comes also with a certain naivety. When Flo is attacked by Brassard’s stranger, she blames her resulting broken leg on a fall from a tree; Guillaume, none the wiser, is too focused on keeping Vic on the right side of the law to foresee the wider dangers threatening to further marginalise her existence. Grondin is pitch-perfect in the role, and the interplay with his female co-stars creates a complex dramatic pivot around which the plot rotates. We sense that the key to the narrative’s mystery might lie with Guillaume.
But it doesn’t. This is a film primarily about women, hardened by life and the pressure to conform. As the eponymous protagonists, Robitaille and Bohringer are excellent. The former, standing with an arrow-straight back and with both arms inexpressively by her side, cocks her head with suspicion whenever anyone extends a greeting her way, while the latter oozes an aggressive sexuality even when teasing Guillaume about his own homosexuality. But it’s Brassard as the insidious stranger opposite them who steals the film’s more immediately iconic moments. Describing herself as a fucking brute, she has a maniacal stare that brings a symbolic, unforgiving retributive force into the lives of the film’s two central characters. We never learn what past deeds Vic or Flo has committed, but their rehabilitation is an unattainable fairytale.
This review comes from a screening at the 57th BFI London Film Festival 2013 (LFF 2013).