Vic + Flo Saw a Bear could best be called a nervous drama. Not quite plot-driven enough to be confused with a conventional thriller, this tense character study from French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté (Bestiaire) leaves us feeling that something ominous is about ready to happen at any moment. The anxiety of that moment’s arrival hangs heavy, and when Côté finally delivers his payoff, it’s considerably disturbing—but it’s almost something of a relief, as well. At least the gnawing anticipation has finally subsided.
The film is a love story of sorts between Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille) and Florence (Romane Bohringer). They don’t seem like bad people, despite being ex-cons. Vic and Flo met in prison—we’re never told what they did that landed them in the clink—and now they’re out, hoping to make a life together in a shack in the middle of the woods in Quebec. Vic gets regular visits from her parole officer, Guillaume (Marc-André Grondin), but they aren’t too invasive. All in all, things appear to be pretty good for this couple.
But almost from the start, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear wields a nagging edginess that’s hard to pin down. It comes in part from Melissa Lavergne’s spare, menacing score, but it’s even more present in the weary faces of Vic and Flo. Now in her 60s, Vic is filled with self-doubt, unsure why the younger, sexier Flo would be interested in her. As for Flo, she’s got a wandering eye—she’s attracted to men and women—but she’s also concerned about a mysterious neighbor (Marie Brassard) who befriends Vic but is actually more interested in Flo because of some unfinished business from their shared past.
Côté sets up these incidents not so much to create a taut narrative as to build an atmosphere: first of general melancholy and then of rising unease. The woods where Vic and Flo reside don’t seem enchanted—rather, it’s a gloomy, overcast place that feels haunted. Soon, we realize that it’s filled with the ghosts of Flo’s past failings—metaphorically but, eventually, also literally. She gets involved with a random stranger, either out of boredom or fear of commitment to Vic. And the neighbor is beginning to hatch her revenge against Flo, which will be meted out in a novel and incredibly cruel fashion.
Befitting its evocative, somewhat misleading title—Vic and Flo never see a bear in the movie—Côté’s drama creates a mood of consistent uncertainty about where it’s going, and does so in a striking manner. And both lead actresses feel as untamed and timeless as the surrounding woods. Robitaille touchingly suggests the paranoia and worry flashing across Vic’s eyes, while Bohringer embodies Flo’s tempestuousness. In a better world, Flo could learn to live with Vic’s romantic insecurities, but these flawed characters don’t live in that world. Instead, theirs is one beset with regret, restlessness and dread. Côté plunges us into those emotions, and it’s a terrible place to live—we sense some sort of terrible reckoning coming for Vic and Flo. Only when it arrives do we realize that Côté has been calmly, confidently guiding us to that moment all along.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Denis Côté
Writer: Denis Côté
Starring: Pierrette Robitaille, Romane Bohringer, Marc-André Grondin, Marie Brassard
Release Date: Screening at AFI Fest 2013 in the World Cinema section