Film Review – Vic + Flo Saw A Bear
Vic + Flo Saw A Bear
What a strange film this is. The French-Canadian Vic + Flo Saw A Bear (2013) is likely to draw responses from each end of the spectrum. I can’t say I loved it, but I can’t deny it stuck with me after it was over. Some of the best stories are ambiguous, leaving us to fill in the blanks ourselves. There is definitely an air of mystery going on here, but for what purpose? It seems nearly everything about it is ambiguous: the plot, the characters, etc. Even the title elicits some sort of odd curiosity. Leaving a story open to interpretation is one thing, but not providing enough information to actually interpret is another. Many questions are raised, but I’m not sure any type of answer would have been sufficient, or even expected.
There are some filmmakers who are masters at this kind of approach. The first to come to mind is Stanley Kubrick. Regardless of what he made, all of Kubrick’s work had this peculiarity lying just beneath the surface. We should never take a Kubrick film at just face value – there is always something more going on. The same can be said about Paul Thomas Anderson or Michael Haneke. These are pretty heavy names, and the fact that Denis Côté (who wrote and directed) made something which brought them to mind is a victory all its own. But the issue is in the feeling of “completion”. While 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), There Will Be Blood (2007), and Caché (2005) left plenty of lingering questions, they always felt completed – nothing more needed to be said. That element is unfortunately missing here.
At first glance, the style has a stark realism to it. Vic (Pierrette Robitaille) is a recently paroled convict who returns to her old home in Quebec to start a new life. This includes trying to take care of her catatonic uncle. Vic simply wants peace and quiet in her backwoods home, and doesn’t even want to get the old sugar shack she lives next to working again – even if it would bring her some extra money. Flo (Romane Bohringer) is Vic’s lover and also an ex-con. Soon after Vic settles in, Flo comes and settles in as well. It’s never explained why either one was jailed to begin with. While Vic enjoys being isolated, Flo desires to go on adventures and interact with the rest of society. Most of their time is spent trying to keep themselves busy and have a little fun together, all while having to deal with Vic’s parole officer Guillaume (Marc-Andre Grondin) every time he drops by.
This only scratches the surface of the plot. More troubling elements come into play as it progresses. I’ll refrain from describing them in detail, but I will say it involves Vic and Flo’s past catching up with them. How this happens is also never explained. Certainly, this isn’t a crime thriller in the traditional sense. There are no big chase or action scenes – everything unfolds quietly, deliberately. A feeling of dread creeps in and builds as we discover the threat circling the main characters. Both Robitaille and Bohringer are good with their performances, having to manage their character’s relationship while also depicting the anxious tension of the film’s second half.
Most of what I’ve described sound like positive aspects, so why am I still feeling a degree of disappointment? A lot has to do with how it wants to tell this stripped down, raw, gritty story, but mixes it with levels of reality and surrealism. The characters move and act like actual people, but they exist in a world that comes dangerously close to fantasy. It’s a difficult mix that leaves an imbalanced tone. The technical skill is undoubtedly present, but what it’s trying to say (if anything at all) is muffled by its unclear nature. By the time we reach the final moments, the film completely falls off the deep end into unreality. These closing scenes feel shoehorned in, belonging in an entirely different movie, seemingly inappropriate to all the realistic qualities that came before it.
I can see how one may watch Vic +Flo Saw A Bear and enjoy it. It has many qualities to admire, and the fact that it doesn’t settle on easy answers is a good thing. My issue is: I don’t think it settles on anything at all. It exists successfully as an enigma, but falters as a gripping character drama. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle put together only to show a blank picture. It attempts to be different things, which is an ambitious goal but a difficult one to reach. Were Vic and Flo really good people? Did their time in prison change them at all? What are we to think of their ultimate fates? Who knows, we’re not given enough information to decide one way or another.