Vic+Flo Saw a Bear
Directed by Denis Côté
This is the portrait of two recently released prisoners (Pierrette Robitaille and Romane Bohringer) who learn to live in a sugar shack deep in the forest.
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★★★½ review by Steven Sheehan on Letterboxd
Two older women in a relationship shack up together in the corner of a remote woodland trying to rebuild their lives. The serene silence of their new surroundings suits one half whilst the other is more restless, eager to enjoy her life near the buzz of the city. Although it all sounds quite passive, Denis Côtés carefully developed story gradually moves through the gears to pack an unexpected sucker punch.
The film is hard to place into one particular category, luring you into a false sense of security before key events change the entire tone. Even then, thanks to the confidence of the two actresses and Côtés patient direction, one shock appears before slipping you back into a still ambience focusing on the middle-aged relationship.
Pierrette Robitaille is Vic(toria) heading back to life after some time in prison. She arrives at her Uncles sparse home hidden away from almost all motion of life. Frequent visits from her parole officer are intended to help Vic reintegrate into the world and this character plays a crucial role in the development of the emotional parts of the narrative.
In a way the film is divided into two halves, one with a looser atmosphere that tightens considerably as darker, pivotal forces come into play. The four characters that matter in the story are all extremely well written people played with a certain amount of hidden depth never quite touched upon. In fact, the film remains a little elusive in that respect leaving you a little unsure as to what exactly its conclusion means in context with the characters arcs.
There is an allegorical or maybe existential subtext that isn't potently clear for us to tap into. A bit of a who, what, why situation. Perhaps repeat viewings reveal more as there is certainly something more going on than initially meets the eye. That mystery doesn't detract from an engrossing look at life stuck in a limbo only something drastic can disturb.
★★★½ review by Kenji Fujishima on Letterboxd
Two former female prisoners—lovers both—try to start their lives over in a secluded environment, but as one might expect, their past eventually catches up with them.
As far as plot goes, that's Vic+Flo Saw a Bear in a nutshell. Sounds awfully familiar, right?
And yet, the execution is anything but. With its long takes, fixed-camera setups and ultra-poised mise-en-scène, director Denis Côté instills an uncannily eerie air that infuses even the most seemingly mundane of conversations; in this context, even standard shot/reverse-shot scenes come off as strangely foreboding. Côté's elliptical storytelling style adds to the uneasy effect: almost entirely observational, with details about these characters' pasts and personalities cleverly doled out in quiet, usually unforced hints, the better to intensify our awareness of dialogue, behavior and environment.
All of this builds up to a climax that makes a bold leap from a kind of queasy realism into the realm of the near-mythical—but the finale is hardly a random whimsical lark, but an all-too-fitting explosion of Côté's skillfully wrought subtle tensions. Vic (Pierrette Robitaille) and Flo (Romane Bohringer) are ultimately trapped not only by their troubled pasts, but also by the ritualistic feel of Côté's frames. Rarely has determinism been evoked to this vivid a degree through purely formal means.
★★★★½ review by Victor Morton on Letterboxd
VIC AND FLO SAW A BEAR (Denis Cote, Canada, 2014, 9)
Can all lesbian feminist movies be like this -- formally accomplished and unpreachy? Indeed, I'd hesitate to characterize the film as all that feminist … The Big Bad Patriarchy is subtext, not text. It's been too long since I've seen BOUND to intelligently compare it in detail with VIC AND FLO. But the two "lesbian criminal lovers" films take such perfectly divergent approaches to their subject matter that I'd be curious to know whether Cote was consciously working against the Wachowskis' film. Cote's formal control creates the sort of slow-burn anxious weirdness needed for this kind of semi-thriller, and I call VIC AND FLO a "semi-thriller" because the dominant emotional mood is queasy unease rather than set-piece suspense.
The American film is by almost any conventional standard far more entertaining and "exciting" (in more sense than one), but because it's also far more exaggerated, unrealistic and archetypal -- for example, Gershon and Tilly seemed to be playing characters named Butch and Femme. Here, the two women seem physically more like grown-up versions of Rivette's Celine (auburn curls and freckles, older-looking) and Julie (long straight black hair) engaging in a different sort of escape from the world … only instead of the cinema, they go off in the woods, both women recently out of prison for crimes that are unspecified but whose reverberations in the present are very specific.
The Canadian film's style, though, calls attention to itself. The framing is ultra-precise and centers on objects and faces more than establishing a space (though the film is never unclear or jerks you around until [arguably] the end). Cote sometimes cuts to an object after the characters see it and react to it. First example to come to my head now is the sudden and threatening appearance of the truck, which I'm pretty sure was the first automobile we saw in the rural setting, and the movie only had about 15 minutes to go by that point. The camera movements always bring out consecutive elements, like the sequence of words in a sentence; it's not DePalmaesque thrills but still obvious and declarative. As some screaming starts, the camera cuts away and starts gliding along the forest in all its green indifference. And this constant backfill is everywhere … the first time we see Vic's parole officer, it's not declared that that's who he is, buit it is eventually explicit. Same with the cutting patterns. There's a sudden cut to black at the instant a telegraphed act of violence is consummated. Another scene starts with the two women, then we see another woman, than a few more (I was thinking "they're hosting a barbecue … no, they're at Lillith Fair"), and it's not until about the seventh cut and/or camera movement that we see a guard's uniform identifying where we are.
Then there's the pure "look" … the lighting is almost all natural, the film stock is very grainy, at times looking like blown-up 16mm film and the palette is devoid of bright or pastel colors. Vic and Flo wear a lot of blue jeans and similar-colored tops -- indeed the film has the whole aesthetic feel of a pair of well-worn Levis. The score is also quite unique -- there's almost none but about a half-dozen times, a few stark and obtrusive drum beats get dropped in. The music does not suggest "forest," "Quebec," "rural" or anything else obvious, so the starkness and obtrusiveness become doubly disquieting, creating a feeling of unmotivated threat. In other words, Cote's style can be called a kind of mannered naturalism and the effect, when married to the sparse plot where B-matter and backstory are mostly left vague, is a naturalistically downbeat thriller.
Other stray thoughts …
Are people saying the title is unclear? There are no ursine beasts on screen, sure, though it (appropriately) situates the film as a kind of fairy tale and it even sort of rhymes with the Rivette title (more so in French). But once you've seen both the climax and the denouement, what it does refer to and what "saw" means is … well, at least as clear as the film itself is. (The ending is, while "drab" has Felliniesque elements in ways I can't detail without spoilage.)
If there's another film centered on a lesbian couple where you see more male nipples than female ones, I can't think of what it is, unless it'd have an excuse of a milieu such as combat sports or swimming. The first time we see the couple in bed, it's our first "view" of Flo but all we see is lumps moving around under a blanket while some fragmentedly girlish under-blanket talk goes on. Again, there's an obvious contrast with BOUND, which was clearly trying for "sexy" (not to speak of The Mistake in BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR). And in the case of one of the male characters, the shirtlessness is so gratuitous that I'd be shocked if it weren't deliberate.
Oh … and if any Skandies voters are fretting over lack of good lead actresses to vote for … here's 20 percent of your ballot right here. It's P-i-e-r-r-e-t-t-e R-o-b-i-t-a-i-l-l-e and R-o-m-a-n-e B-o-h-r-i-n-g-e-r.
★★★½ review by Juan Bacaro on Letterboxd
Una triste historia que vale la pena al final de todo el recorrido.
Curiosamente Denis Côté estuvo nominado por esta película al Golden Bear del Festival de Berlín; pero esta vez Vic y Flo se quedaron sin verlo. Lo que si ganaron fue el Oso de Plata (también conocido como el "Alfred Bauer Award").
Aparte de destacarse en otros festivales la película también hizo ruido en Sitges.
Impactante desenlace. LamentOSO.
★★★½ review by Ronan Doyle on Letterboxd
Capsule review from my Cork 2013 coverage at Next Projection
The first of two Québécois directors to play Cork for the second consecutive year in 2013, Denis Côté returns to the festival with Vic + Flo Saw a Bear. It says less about the new movie’s content than its predecessor Bestiaire that this one is positively commercial by contrast. And yet there’s more in common between the two than might meet the eye on first sight: the earlier movie was a dialogue-free documentary simply observing animals as they room about their zoo home, letting them speak for themselves; the new one, albeit a narrative feature, does much the same for humans. Ex-con lovers living deep in the countryside, the eponymous women play host to Côté’s slow-burn drama, which unassumingly amounts to an alarming study of the extent of human cruelty, and with it our capacity for kindness. Deliberately denying his audience details, the director both strengthens and weakens the film: much as his approach may essentialise emotion, it’s disarming to a point of dispassion. With their story so reduced to scenic ciphers, Vic and Flo can’t help but feel the same themselves.
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