'Two Lovers and a Bear': Cannes Review

Strongly acted but unevenly told.

Dane DeHaan and Tatiana Maslany headline 'War Witch' director Kim Nguyen's unusual love story, set in Arctic Canada.

Just three years after Denis Coté’s Vic and Flo Saw a Bear, another Quebec director, Kim Nguyen, has made an unclassifiable romance with an ursine touch: Two Lovers and a Bear. Dane DeHaan and Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany star as the titular inamoratos, a couple trying to keep their love alive in a small town in the Canadian Arctic. The locale’s inhospitable cold, which can reach minus fifty degrees, is but a mere trifle compared to the emotional baggage and struggles of these two volatile youngsters. And like Nguyen’s Oscar-nominated War Witch from 2012, the film is less a documentary-like look at people in harrowing circumstances than an intimate story in which physical representations that seem to have escaped from the protagonists’ fractured psyches are not out of the question. Because of its eccentric qualities and a fluctuant narrative throughline, these Lovers will have to rely on the relative star power of the leads for breakout beyond niche status.

Roman (DeHaan), a soft-featured man with flaxy facial hair and squinty eyes, is an outsider who lives in a small village near the North Pole (made to look much smaller than Iqaluit, a regional Canadian capital of some 7,000 souls where part of the film was shot). The young man’s clearly in love with open-faced local gal Lucy (Maslany), though judging by an early scene, in which they talk about their musical tastes while ice fishing, they haven’t known each other for all that long, though they do have some history together.  

Nguyen films the leads together and also separately, while at work or, in Lucy’s case, with her (at least partially) Inuit family, in fluid and intuitive Steadicam shots and lush medium closeups that suggest the director knows what he’s doing and is entirely at home in the story. But the same won’t hold true immediately for the audience, with the introduction of the characters, their relationships and backstories and the setup of the story that will follow initially somewhat chaotic.

Things start to come into focus when it becomes clear that Lucy isn’t feeling well. Not only does she seem to be stalked or haunted by someone but on top of that, she’s been accepted into a biology course down south and will have to leave in two weeks, something she’s initially afraid to tell her lover. When finally confessed, the news throws Roman’s hopes of a long-term relationship for a loop, as explicitly says he’d rather kill himself than move “back there”. His subsequent decision that Lucy should stop seeing him immediately since she’s leaving soon anyway is something she finds impossible to comprehend or accept.

This cascading sequence of events, which will lead to broken glass, countless empty bottles and cans and the arrival of the sheriff (Kakki Peter), finally crystallizes in a rather dramatic fashion that the leads are both tightrope walkers when it comes to dealing with their emotions. They only seem to be in a state of equipoise when they are with each other and even just the fear of their harmony being threatened might immediately send one of them tumbling into the void. (Interestingly, this precarious balance recalls the sickness of the protagonist of yet another Quebec film, Xavier Dolan’s Mommy.)

Nguyen dramatizes the escalating emotional stakes with flair, with the scene in which Lucy tells Roman she’s been accepted for her course far away, for example, staged with each of them seated on a separate, stationary snowmobile. In this way, physical contact between the two is impossible and they remain separate entities who have to deal with the revelations and their fears by themselves (the vehicle also provides a quick getaway for one of them). In the next shot, the two try to make love in a Spartanly furnished bedroom but are unable to, as — or so it initially seems — their upcoming separation hangs like a dark cloud over the proceedings. But there is more at play here, which will only be revealed in a sequence set in the film’s second half that’s set inside a long-abandoned military installation in the middle of an icy nowhere that plays like a brusque and brutal emotional roller coaster that develops against what feels like the beginning of an eerie horror film (the ace soundscape and minimalist score point in that direction more than once). Not all audiences will be on board with all the revelations here, with the problems of the protagonists (as well as the sheriff) all so similar it feels rather convenient.

Unlike in War Witch, the writer-director’s ballsy ambition isn’t channeled into a sophisticated but smooth overarching storyline. Some individual scenes are certainly striking and the couple’s complex relationship and chemistry are believable but the overall narrative retains an erratic and somewhat jerky quality as the various elements don’t always logically build on what has come before.

And there hasn’t been any mention yet of what will surely become the film’s most talked about ingredient, which occurs for the first time about 25 minutes in. Here too, one senses there’s a strong or at least creative idea that Nguyen doesn’t quite know how to use to the film’s best advantage, as if the best solution to integrate and exploit this unexpected element might still be a couple of drafts away. The question of the fusion of different genre elements — which hark back to Nguyen’s earlier features such as The Marsh — again comes up but is never quite satisfactorily resolved. And the audience’s suspension of disbelief is so much harder to obtain if a planned coup de theatre comes out of left field and then never quite ties fully into the already established fabric of the film.  

That said, DeHaan and Maslany both have meaty, rangy roles here that are not exactly subtle but never become quite implausible either, with both of them finding a convincing middle ground between these two extremes — even as their unpredictable and unstable characters never manage to find similar ground themselves. In a small supporting role, Canadian thespian Gordon Pinsent (who so memorably starred alongside Julie Christie in Away From Her) offers an unexpected voice of reason, though not without humor and a few quirks.

Production companies: Max Films, Jobro Productions, North Creative Films

Cast: Dane DeHaan, Tatiana Maslany, John Ralston, Kakki Peter, Simin

Director: Kim Nguyen

Screenplay: Kim Nguyen, based on an original idea by Louis Grenier

Producer: Roger Frappier

Executive producers: Jeff Sackman, Patrick Roy, Mark Slone

Co-producers: Jonathan Bronfman, Ellen Hamilton

Director of photography: Nicolas Bolduc

Production designer: Emmanuel Frechette

Costume designer: Judy Jonker

Editor: Richard Comeau

Music: Jesse Zubot

Casting: Heidi Levitt, Lucie Robitaille

Sales: Tajj Media / TF1 International


No rating, 96 minutes