Vic + Flo Saw A Bear is something like an expansion on Denis Côté’s last, the strictly observational non-documentary Bestiaire (2012), although that in turn was a distillation of his favoured practice of looking at slightly odd characters shut away from the world. In Curling (2010) and Carcasses (2009), for example, it was by their own volition, as distinct from the animals of Bestiaire, and in Vic + Flo Saw A Bear the same is true, although rather weighted since both women are not-long released from prison.
Vic goes to stay with her invalid uncle in some Quebec backwoods. As incarnated by Pierrette Robitaille she is magnificent, stern, sardonic and beautiful at 63, with a funny loose-limbed, wide-legged stance, and a well-guarded streak of vulnerability. Her lover who soon joins her is Romane Bohringer, if anything more feisty. These are women used to standing up for themselves, although as a pointedly wordless flashback makes clear, they are used also to the chat and camaraderie of the yard, whereas now there’s just the pair of them to sit in the glade outside their house. Exchanging one prison for another is eating at Flo a little, so no wonder Vic worries she may lose her, unprepared herself to move to a city since “I’m old enough to know I hate people.”
She doesn’t entirely, however, almost too willing to make friends, not that you’d notice. Unfortunate since, in the way of these things, the past is about to catch up with the ex-cons. The air of not-a-lot happening is perfectly off-set by this slow burn, and when it comes, it hits hard. The point of the film is more to observe these outside people, people who’ve fallen through the cracks, making what they can of their lives, forming small alliances, connections, and joshing friendships (particularly with the decent parole officer). The thriller elements intrude in a realistically brutal way, without unnecessary explanation, and serve to influence and illuminate Vic and Flo’s relationship more than to thrill (that said, the baddie is terrific).
Shot with ugly-beautiful high contrast and woven with humour both bitter and sweet, Vic + Flo Saw A Bear shows Côté becoming perhaps more cinematic-romantic with an ending that is both tragic and touchingly, impossibly happy. It is capped by a final shot, however, which cannot be described in detail without spoilers, but comes off as a weak and irrelevant joke. A shame, since up to this point it is a film of fine, affecting performances and perfectly restrained direction, that otherwise does not put a foot wrong.
AFI FEST festival film page: Vic + Flo Saw A Bear
Director: Denis Côté
Screenwriter: Denis Côté
Producers: Stéphanie Morisette, Sylvain Corbeil
Cinematographer: Ian Lagarde
Editor: Nicolas Roy
Production Designer: Colombe Raby
Cast: Pierrette Robitaille, Romane Bohringer, Marc-André Grondin, Marie Brassard