With seven features in the past eight years, Quebec critic-turned-director, Denis Côté (Carcasses, Curling, Bestiaire) is both a one-man industry and the darling of the international film-festival circuit for the formal rigour of his style of long, carefully composed takes and his cryptic, provoking narratives.
Vic and Flo Saw a Bear, a prize-winner at Berlin, is, for Côté, a relatively straightforward drama though, the way it unfolds feels less about a conventional story than a series of set-ups and what-next moments in a genre-bender that might be called nature-noir.
The convention of a restorative rural retreat is part of Canadian mythology in general and particularly pronounced in Quebec cinema from Denys Arcand to Xavier Dolan. At the same time, Côté plays with gangsters-on-the-run B-movie conventions, with specific plot elements that echo Russ Meyer’s 1965 exploitation film, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
A middle-aged woman, Vic (Pierrette Robitaille) comes to a bus stop in a rural community. After an oddball encounter with a kid playing a trumpet (a return visit suggests he might be an angel), she arrives at a sugar shack in the woods to live with and care for her uncle, an elderly, mute, paraplegic man with a prophet’s long white beard. Vic fires the teenaged boy who’s been taking care of him, which angers the boy’s father and is a first step in stirring up hostility among the local folk.
There’s no exposition, backstory or exploration of motives. Instead, the film progresses with a series of arrivals at the sugar shack, a one-time party centre with a couple of vending machines. A young man shows up. He’s Guillaume (Marc-André Grondin), who is Vic’s parole officer, a character who is simultaneously officious and sympathetic to Vic, a 61-year-old former prisoner. Shortly after, a younger woman, Florence (Romane Bohringer) appears. She’s Victoria’s former cellmate and lover, and they’re about to start a new life together in the woods.
But they’re not well-matched. Victoria is content to lie low and take care of the old man while she plants a garden. But every paradise has its snake, or, more accurately, a collection of them: Florence is deathly bored and ends up spending time at the local bar, where she drinks and parties with a local hunk (Ted Pluviose).
Then comes another visitor, Marina St-Jean (Marie Brassard). A jolly extrovert, Marina says she’s working for the water company and she flirts with Vic and offers advice for her garden. But Marina isn’t who she says is. Her real interest is in Flo and some unspecified betrayal in the past. The net begins to close in.
The most obvious concession to genre expectations is that rebel girls don’t end up happy, whether in Faster Pussycat! or Thelma and Louise. The film’s second half unfolds with a tone of increasing menace, leading to over-the-top sadistic violence and a surreal final twist.
While every impeccable shot in Côté’s arsenal is deliberate, there’s more a sense of play than necessity to his choices: A scene when the women visit an old railway museum of rusted train engines on blocks is an obvious symbol of blocked escape, but mostly a melancholic set piece. If there’s a low-key disappointment to Vic and Flo, it’s that the film teases the mind and pleases the eye without requiring emotional commitment. As nasty as things turn out, we remain outside the experience of the characters, watching them without being asked to contribute our sympathy.
In fairness, it’s a movie about suggestions and questions with a tone that’s equal parts deadpan and menace; Côté won’t tell you what to think, but he forces you to try.