Two ex-convicts and lovers try to get back to normal in the Canuck backwoods in the oddball offering “Vic + Flo ont vu un ours.” True to form, eclectic Quebec filmmaker Denis Cote (“Curling,” “Bestiare”) isn’t interested in telling a straightforward lesbian love story, instead pitching the hard-to-classify film as a mixture of revenge drama and tender middle-age romance that’s occasionally peppered with deadpan drolleries, while never quite shaking off an undercurrent of menace. A Berlin competish slot could translate into the helmer’s widest exposure yet.
Cote, a former film critic, has abandoned the more experimental vein of his earlier fiction work for more coherent stories — in terms of narrative, if not necessarily tone — and this, combined with a growing level of technical mastery, has clearly paid off; “Vic + Flo” is his most accomplished work yet. Though the film certainly won’t be to every taste, one finally senses there’s someone at the helm who has not only a vision but also the know-how and means to put that particular vision onscreen.
The film opens with the arrival of 61-year-old Victoria, or Vic (Pierrette Robitaille), near the former sugar shack of her uncle Emile (legit vet Georges Molnar), whose flowing white beard and hair would make him perfect for biblical roles if he weren’t a half-paralyzed mute. After quickly dismissing his lanky teenage caretaker (Pier-Luc Funk), a boy who seems allergic to wearing shirts, Vic installs herself in the cabin.
The arrival of two apparently tough people reveal something about the woman’s past: Vic’s young-looking parole officer, Guillaume (Marc-Andre Grondin), regularly comes in to check on her, and her lover and fellow ex-convict, the French Florence or Flo (Romane Bohringer), also has decided to make this shack in the middle of nowhere home. The two soon have the place to themselves after Emile moves to a more adequate environment.
Things seem idyllic enough initially, even though Cote has already punctuated the narrative with not only an intimidatingly percussive score, but also short scenes that hint at trouble on the horizon. Flo is constantly looking for action elsewhere — and with men, even chatting up Guillaume, though she knows he bats for the other team. A funny yet clearly tough-as-nails woman (Marie Brassard) who casually befriends Vic also seems more than a little suspicious, and the threat of violence hangs thick in the air for these two ex-cons.
Though the pic never becomes a full-blown character piece, local star Robitaille (“Nuit de Noces”) imbues Vic with enough soul to make auds want to root for her, and French thesp Bohringer (“Total Eclipse”), who’s some 20 years younger, plays the possible duplicity of Flo just right. Grondin (“C.R.A.Z.Y.) aces his supporting turn as the officer who pretends to be tougher than he really is, down to the shaved head and moustache that are supposed to make him look more butch. A scene with Bohringer and Grondin alone while they eat fries outdoors is especially well played.
The second half continues its scenes of everyday life, including a dryly comic interlude in which the two women and Guillaume visit a railway museum together. But slowly, Cote allows violence to re-enter the women’s lives. As in “Curling,” there are echoes of the Coen brothers in the juxtaposition of eccentric humor and shocking cruelty, though the overall effect feels more coherent here.
D.p. Ian Lagarde’s camerawork is beautifully composed, the editing sharp and sound design crisp. Title, untranslated on the print caught, means “Vic + Flo Saw a Bear.”