Denis Cote's Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is a frustrating study of a pair of flawed ex-criminals on the path to a sustainable, albeit unexciting life after time in prison, and how their unshakable personality traits work against them. In the detached expanses of rural Canada, the director navigates some rather turbulent ground along the way: a lesbian relationship complicated by one's attraction to men; caring for an incapable elderly person shortly after getting released from jail; and the mutual trust between paroled criminals and a caring parole officer. There's a lot for Cote to coherently weave together among the compelling relationship between Vic and Flo, hinged on dependence and dependability along with the lingering fear of one's past coming back to bite them. It's a shame, then, that the thematic burden proves too heavy and unruly for the complex characters and their gradually-revealed histories, building into a confused crime-drama that clashes with its purported dramatic intentions as it nears its climax.
While entirely different in purpose and tone, Cote's film exhibits similarities to The Wachowski's neo-noir thriller Bound, focused on the recent release of Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille) from prison and into a meager, stable life at a sugar shack in the outskirts of Quebec. She meets regularly with a considerate yet no-nonsense parole officer, Guillaume (Marc-Andre Grondin), who tracks her assimilation back into society her domestic living situation, made somewhat complicated by the demands of her minimally-conscious uncle, Emile, and those who cared for him prior to her arrival. Soon after her release, her lover Florence (Romane Bohringer) -- also an ex-convict who's a little less "reformed" yet freer than Victoria -- shows up in her bed and back in her life. Amid the isolation and limited activities, such as gardening and zipping around in a golf cart, Vic stays devoted to keeping her nose clean and relying on Florence's love as her satisfaction. Florence, meanwhile, still has her doubts and independent desires that she hides, as well as ex-colleagues pursuing her for breaking from the life.
Writer/director Cote doesn't rely on those habitual means of exposition to introduce the characters in Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, instead throwing the point-of-view directly on Victoria's stroll to her new home as the casually surreptitious narrative takes shape. Bit by bit, the writing reveals more about her rebellious streak at an older age, her broken relationship with her family, and her attachment to Flo ... yet very little about her incarceration and release. Cote cleverly lets Victoria's erratic personality take shape through her reactions and introspective moments alone -- smoking, hiking, crying -- instead of her personality getting determined by the severity of her crimes. Similarly, Flo nonchalantly enters the picture as she facelessly tumbles underneath Victoria's sheets, later sarcastically responding to her lover's humdrum living conditions, struggling with the unrestrained spirit that likely led to her own imprisonment. These are genuine, appropriately weather-beaten performances from Pierrette Robitaille and Romane Bohringer that add life to the layers of their complex, codependent relationship.
Enriched by gritty camerawork that relishes the nuance of their internal grief and the rural isolation, that enigmatic build-up carries over to the connective tissue within the drama itself, gradually forming an ill-omened mystery around Vic and Flo's past while they butt heads with the parole officer. Cote's rustic, deliberate perspective on the women proves too self-interested to maintain a strong suspenseful pulse alongside everything else going on, though, resorting to characters making doubtful decisions in the creation of the story's paltry conflicts. Vic's gullibility and Flo's insistence on provoking others become a source of frustration instead of enriching the depth of their characters, undermining the potency that come from their same-sex relationship concerns ("Are you going to get yourself a man?") and their strengthening rapport with Guillaume. The side-plot involving the care for Vic's uncle becomes particularly cumbersome, whether it's the concerned extended family who previously cared for him or the awkward reminders of his significance later on.
Regardless of the meandering focus, there's a compelling personal story at the core of Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, where the manufactured dangers behind the skeletons in Flo's closet are elevated by how the situation complicates the women's grasp on security and their admiration for one another, for better and for worse. Then, Denis Cote lets his ambition run wild with a surreal, harrowingly nihilistic ending that effectively renders that development moot, revealing the metaphorical intention behind the film's title in an infuriating moment of character foolishness. It's worth applauding the gusto it took for Cote to push the envelope with such an ending, and it occurs for credible reasons (well, as credible as a heartless, psychotic vendetta can get). Yet, it also comes about unexpectedly and pulls the rug out from under the film's purported objectives, tossing aside the perseverance and adaptation to transitioning out of hard times. Instead, director Cote leaves the homespun calamity of Vic and Flo on a note of regret and futility, and it's a lesser character piece for the bite it delivers.
Video and Audio:
Despite being a rural drama, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is shot in a similar fashion to gritty crime-dramas, reducing the warmth of skin and vividness of foliage to a stormy, stony palette and harsh graininess. Oscilloscope Laboratories present the 1.85:1-framed, widescreen-enhanced transfer with that perspective clearly in their sights: the line between digital noise and intentional heaviness gets appropriately blurred, yet the fine detail of weathered skin, of gravel paths and wood grain, and of various tattered clothing is elegantly conveyed. Skin tones are intentionally reduced yet still convey a bit of pinkness that's well-balanced against the cinematography's intentions, while the heavy contrast only intermittently cancels out details through the black levels. It's an attractive transfer considering Denis Cote's intentions.
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear might be presented in a 5.1 Dolby Digital transfer, but there's very little indication of it being a surround track, something that's not unexpected from an independent dialogue-driven drama. Almost all of the activity occupies the front channels, with only astray insect or forest ambient element travels to the rear. The French dialogue remains hefty and relatively clear, though it can get a little unruly during more close-quartered interior sequences, such as when Vic and Flo have a chat about what to do with the sugar shack. While rare and not without some thin, somewhat metallic elements, there are a few sound effects that offer some engaging clarity, such as the clanks and squeaks of driving a golf cart and the metal clank of playing horseshoes. The important elements are in-place and serviceable, and that's what matters. Optional English subtitles are clearly translated and properly bolded.
The only extra included with Vic + Flo Saw a Bear comes in what's liberally described as a "featurette", entitled The Bear (35:26, 16x9). Instead of structured interviews or some kind of focus on the film's conception breaking up the concept, it simply throws together over a half-hour of unfiltered behind-the-scenes footage across its shoots, with French subtitles available. A Trailer (2:10, 16x9) has also been included.
Two female ex-convicts and long-term lovers shacking up together in an isolated, low-activity corner of rural Canada forms the basis for Vic + Flo Saw a Bear. Coupled with the steady, ever-present unease in their living conditions, the frustration with being checked on by a parole officer, and their checkered past, it's an intriguing setting for the organic development of their tricky, lopsided relationship. Unfortunately, the conflicts driving the growth in their relationship aren't as cohesive and convincing as the rawness of Vic and Flo's bond, with an ending that delivers a hefty blow to the dramatic trajectory Cote set in motion. Rent It.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site