Let’s Get Away From It All
by Benjamin Mercer

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear
Dir. Denis Côté, Canada, KimStim

Writer-director Denis Côté’s seventh feature concerns an aging ex-con who has resolved to retreat from the world at large. Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille) is sealing herself off, nestling deep into the woods of Quebec, following what we learn, by degrees, was a long stint of imprisonment—a scrap of dialogue refers to a “life sentence,” we observe her skittishness with a vigilant parole officer, and finally we see the depth of her affection for a former fellow inmate who shows up one day to complete (and then unsettle) Vic’s quiet exile. Vic heads straight for the house of her uncle, now immobilized and unable to speak. His residence is adjoined to a defunct maple-syrup manufactory, in a town where everyone seems to be buzzing back and forth along the same back-road circuits: a shirtless teen operates his remote-control helicopter on the side of the street, a woman zips through a shortcut on her four-wheeler, go-carts hug the oxbow turns at the local main-attraction track, and our title characters swerve in and out of lanes on a loaner golf cart.

At once sinuous and almost mournfully droll, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear itself feels a bit like an obstacle course, setting up a number of genre elements (ex-con romance, end-of-the-line resignation, cat-and-mouse games, etc.) only to bob and weave around them. But the central characters are so palpably whittled down by outlaw exhaustion that these narrative switchbacks feel more genuinely disconcerting than the result of a prankish script. Côté’s first feature after the intriguing 2012 documentary Bestiaire—in which the static camera observes a succession of penned animals grazing and bucking and pecking, occasionally looking up to perceive God knows what in turn—opens by presenting its protagonist as a haggard observer, standing in silent judgment over a bleating trumpet performance by a boy scout. As the introduction would suggest, this is a woman who is world-weary and watchful (quite a bit of peering out into the rustling darkness follows, but our protagonists do not, in fact, see an actual bear). These qualities also come to define the film’s tone, which is an atmospheric simmer of suspicion and foreboding, and its distinctive rhythm—remotely clipped, marching along to a sparse drumbeat soundtrack.

Côté appears to bring in genre conventions only to work around them, but there’s a deeper tension at play here than the one between what the audience might expect and what they’re actually given: the narrative feels simultaneously arbitrary and meticulously mapped out, stably unstable, calculated and de facto improvised—it’s as if the filmmaker has managed to internalize, on a structural level, what we witness the characters slowly relearning, which is that even the most considered plans have a way of going completely awry. Right out of the gate, we seem to be in for something like a coming-home family drama—Vic tells the teenager taking care of her uncle that she will assume the duty, and not long afterwards her brother pulls his Jeep into the drive to check in with the old man, conversing with Vic mostly at a considerable distance—though that movie never really materializes. Instead, the focus begins to shift, after just a few scenes, upon the arrival of Florence (Romane Bohringer).

Vic and Flo met in prison at some point, and now they’ve reunited out in the sticks, allied against the society they’ve left behind. As the movie progresses, however, it becomes clear that time has long since run out on this relationship, forged in an inhospitable environment and now transplanted, years later, to a bucolic setting where it’s failing to take root. (One might well be reminded of the more serious recent Romanian film Beyond the Hills, in which two women who once clung to each other amid another harsh institutional environment—an orphanage—reunite years later to disastrous consequences.) This is not the type of match that makes obvious sense upon first glance: Vic is quite a bit older, perhaps fifteen to twenty years, with a sharp nose, a permanent frown, and a bit of a paunch; Flo is lean and sinewy, with long, dark hair and a Charlotte Gainsbourg slope to her face. Flo, herself fleeing from some unspecified threat in the city, grows more and more restless, while Vic pledges that she will kill herself if Flo were to ever leave. “What’s a chick like you doing in that shack with that old hag?” a neighbor, upset at the women’s general neglect of the near-vegetative uncle, asks Flo at the town bar, where we eventually see her pick up a man and take him to a motel. Flo finds herself seeking the company of strangers, but for the most part Vic and Flo’s tenderness with each other is contrasted with their standoffish stance toward everyone else. Their codependency becomes even more fraught as Côté peels away another layer to reveal a full-blown revenge plot—a straight-shooting “environmentalist” Vic befriends at her property line turns out to be the crime lord hunting for Flo.

We come to understand more fully the former prisoners’ anger at the capital-S System and their reflexive career-criminal evasions in their interactions with Vic’s parole officer, the crisply attired Guillaume (Marc-André Grondin). He’s younger than both Vic and Flo, and he just barely lets down his professional guard (they guess that he’s gay, and he eventually confirms their suspicions) to become a sort of guardian to the couple. But it’s not enough to protect them from the sadistic forces that have Flo in their crosshairs. As in his deeply weird Carcasses—a quasi-documentary about a scrap-metal merchant whose forest property gets invaded, in the film’s apparently wholesale-fictional later stretches, by a band of Down syndrome youths—Côté here reveals self-imposed isolation as an illusion, and the middle of nowhere as a place where society’s exiles are locked in a lifelong pattern of finding and losing one another. It is a site where dangers are always lurking, and where violent acts might assume a more primal intensity, away from the crowd and amid the untamed overgrowth. This is not to say that it’s always easy to track what, exactly, Côté is up to here. But despite all its narrative feints, Vic + Flo comes to assume the weight of an open-ended parable—a vision of a true life on the margins as a maze of intersecting dead ends, oddly affecting and unaffectedly odd.