A film that's completely unpredictable, and all the better for it.
Vic + Flo Saw A Bear
If Vic + Flo Saw A Bear could be summed up in one word, it would be “peculiar”. The film opens with a young boy and his friend playing the trumpet poorly, a fact that Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille) immediately makes them aware of. “You can’t expect people to give you money if you don’t know how to play,” she tells them. One of them responds with “You could still give us money just to encourage us”, leading to an immediate cut to Victoria walking away. The fast-paced, percussive soundtrack doesn’t fit what’s on screen, and the abridged credits (first names are initial only, meaning Robitaille is credited as “P. Robitaille”) just add on to the bizarre mood established from the outset.
Victoria is recently out on parole, and she comes to her uncle’s house only to discover he’s paralyzed. A teenage boy from the area is taking care of him, but Vic sends him off once she arrives. Besides periodic visits from her parole officer (Marc-André Grondin), it’s a mostly quiet existence. That is until Florence (Romane Bohringer), Victoria’s prison girlfriend (she just finished serving her time), shows up and the two rekindle their romance. Director Denis Côté introduces Flo by not introducing her at all; a shot of Victoria looking bored cuts to the two women fooling around with each other under some blankets. Flo’s entrance speaks to the way Côté creates a film that’s completely unpredictable. Florence seemingly comes into existence the moment she appears on screen, and this feeling of things happening exactly as they occur extends to the rest of the film.
Côté’s skills at establishing his film’s universe provides much of Vic + Flo Saw A Bear’s enjoyment. The way Côté frames his characters, usually in very deliberate poses that imply a boxing in of some sort, communicates Vic and Flo’s mental state. Both women, despite being surrounded by wilderness, are still trapped. Victoria’s past crimes (we never know why either woman went to jail, but it doesn’t matter anyway) make her unable to move forward, while Florence’s desire to live in the city makes her new location feel like another prison. Côté’s compositions do all the work communicating his characters’ feelings. Early on we see Victoria crying outside her new home, but the camera only observes her through the home’s small doorway (first from behind, then head-on). She may be in the wilderness, but to Victoria her entire world is between those two narrow walls.
Once a mysterious figure from Flo’s past shows up, things begin to make sense. The shift from offbeat drama to dark revenge tale makes certain aspects like the fast-paced score and precise framing click into place. It’s as if the film starts out as a thriller, but has to wait for its characters to catch up with the proceedings. It may sound like Côté doesn’t have a handle on things, but it’s evident from frame one that he’s in complete control. The switch to more genre-based material doesn’t work as well as the other tonal shifts throughout Vic + Flo Saw A Bear, but it’s only a slight step down in terms of enjoyment.
Côté’s power as a filmmaker is evident in the film’s brief coda, a fantasy sequence that doesn’t exactly fit in with the film (for all its strangeness, everything still operates within reality) yet flows perfectly with everything that came before it. Vic + Flo Saw A Bear is a very strange film, one that’s fully realized yet feels like it can veer off into any direction at a moment’s notice. Watching the film feels like being on unstable ground, but that feeling of uncertainty makes for a thrilling experience.