Vic + Flo Saw a Bear: Berlin Review

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear - H 2013

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear - H 2013

Too cool — in every way — to pack much punch as a tragic romance, but it scores points for originality.

Festival circuit darling Denis Cote’s story of doomed lesbian love in the Canadian woods is half oddball melodrama, half grotesque revenge tale. 

BERLIN -- The lesbian tough gals who used to be behind bars in 1970s exploitation movies are on the outside in tranquil Canadian forest land, suspended in a cinematic landscape someplace between Wes Anderson and Eric Rohmer in Vic + Flo Saw a Bear

Montreal critic-turned-filmmaker Denis Cote’s bizarre anti-melodrama of doomed love and gruesome revenge comes on strong with sharp visuals and eccentric humor. But its mannerisms become too studied and its pace stultifying, which makes the French-language film rarely as much fun as its title. However, anything this out-there is bound to find at least a small coterie of champions.

Cote made one of the more arresting movies to hit the festival circuit last year with Bestiaire, a unique documentary that offered a haunting, near-wordless contemplation of the relationship between man and beast from both perspectives. This narrative feature has a comparable elegance but a more mischievous spirit, shifting from droll detachment through more sober interludes to sudden jolts of extreme violence, and ultimately, to a whisper of bittersweet afterlife whimsy. It’s a movie that informs us -- a little smugly -- that it marches to its own drummer.

The drum is heard literally in composer Melissa Lavergne’s tribal war signals that punctuate the action with growing intensity, forewarning of the horror that’s coming. In essence, the film is a twisted outlaw genre piece about female ex-cons released back into society, who remain suspicious if not downright defiant of its codes.

At 61, Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille) is let out early from a life sentence for an unknown crime. A hardened woman with a blunt manner and a derisive sense of humor, she retreats to a secluded former sugar shack in the woods, owned by her uncle, Emile Champagne (Georges Molnar). A surreal frontier figure with his long white mane and beard, he has been reduced, presumably by a stroke, to a mute witness confined to a wheelchair. While it’s unclear whether Vic ever had any real affection for the old coot, she curtly dismisses Charlot (Pier-Luc Funk), the clueless teen taking care of Emile, thus making enemies of the boy and his father (Olivier Aubin).

Cote’s elliptical approach eliminates most of the standard connective thread and pretty much all of the exposition, so characters tend to appear rather than be introduced, and their backstory remains guesswork.

Three key figures arrive on the scene. The first is Victoria’s parole officer Guillaume (Marc-Andre Grondin), who initially seems strictly by-the-book but is steadily revealed to be sympathetic and invested in her readjustment. Next comes Florence (Romane Bohringer), Vic’s younger former cellmate and lover, who has other reasons besides reconnecting to want to shack up in the out-of-the-way spot. Finally, a stranger introducing herself as Marina St.-Jean (Marie Brassard) shows up offering gardening tips and flirting with Vic before exposing herself as a ghost from the past.

Much of the ambling midsection centers on Vic’s mounting anxiety that restless Flo will leave her. More of a cell-block lesbian than a dedicated full-timer, Flo provides plenty of cause for worry, hooking up with a hunky black barfly (Ted Pluviose), cruising a hot young racer at the go-kart track (Dany Boudereault) and even coming on to handsome gay Guillaume. (For a movie about a lesbian couple, there’s quite an assortment of man candy here.) But Vic assures her that they will end up together, which proves prophetic, though not in the way she anticipated.

The nature of the violence is grotesque and unexpected and, without giving too much away, carried out on the orders of one of the most amusing butch bitches since the heyday of Mercedes McCambridge. But while Cote lavishes much attention on the stylistic quirks and notes of oddball humor, he neglects to authenticate the emotional stakes for Vic and Flo. They remain somewhat limited as characters, despite solid work from Bohringer and especially Robitaille.

It’s all very well to toy with genre elements by making incongruous aesthetic and tonal choices and adding an offbeat sensibility. But the director still needs to make us care about his characters. (Not to mention think about basic requirements, like suspense.) Arguably the most memorable figure here is Guillaume, played by the appealing Grondin with a wonderful combination of officiousness melting into warmth and compassion.

Still, there’s lots to appreciate in this idiosyncratic film, not least in the witty visual compositions and desaturated color palette of cinematographer Ian Lagarde, and in Cote’s knowing use of nature as a stage for human comedy and tragedy. There’s also a delicious bite of ‘80s French electropop on the end credits, wryly commenting, “It’s a pretty way to die.”

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: La Maison de Prod, Metafilms
Cast: Pierrette Robitaille, Romane Bohringer, Marc-Andre Grondin, Marie Brassard, Georges Molnar, Olivier Aubin, Pier-Luc Funk, Guy Thauvette, Ramon Cespedes, Dany Boudereault, Johanne Haberlin, Ted Pluviose, Raoul Fortier-Mercier
Director-screenwriter: Denis Cote
Producers: Stephanie Morissette, Sylvain Corbeil
Director of photography: Ian Lagarde
Production designer: Colombe Raby
Music: Melissa Lavergne
Costume designer: Patricia McNeil
Editor: Nicolas Roy
Sales: Films Boutique
No rating, 96 minutes