Montreal-based filmmaker Denis Côté's work is always both cryptic and heavy with meaning, but his latest narrative feature, "Vic and Flo Saw a Bear," stands out because at first it seems deceptively simple. From the purely avant-garde "Bestiare" to the restrained father-and-daughter portrait "Curling," Côté's movies invite viewers to search for clues to his motives. "Vic and Flo" is no exception and it takes a long time getting there. Sharply drawn characters and fine-tuned performances follow a meandering trajectory that finally upends expectations at the very end. Côté puts viewers at ease before throwing them off.
That's not to say, that "Vic and Flo" entirely obscures its eccentric intentions. In the first shot, newly released 61-year-old prison convict Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille) arrives at the isolated countryside where she will live with her catatonic uncle. There, she encounters a young boy playing an offkey rendition of "Frere Jacques" on his horn. The notes are all there but the entire thing sounds off -- much like "Vic and Flo," which initially takes the form of a pedestrian relationship drama before twisting into odder, darker directions.
Awkwardly attempting to start life anew at her uncle's place, where suspicious locals look down on her for taking advantage of the helpless old man's resources, Victoria has no apparent gameplan other than to lay low. But she's not alone in her quest: Soon, her longtime cellmate and current lover Florence (Romane Bohringer) -- also newly released -- shows up at Victoria's request; they attempt to settle into a polite existence. Because we never learn much about their courtship except that it took place behind bars, it's tough to tell exactly how they wound up together: The somber, detached Victoria strikes a heavy contrast to the younger, energetic Florence.
However, as Côté' observes them in bed and wandering around the desolate town, it's easy to get drawn into their current dilemma: Constantly bugged by a trenchant young parole officer Guillaume (Marc-André Grondin) who's suspicious of their motives, they fight to justify their existence while Florence faces mounting frustrations over their solitude. It's exactly that quality of their setting that appeals to Victoria: "I'm old enough to know I hate people," she says. Flo's assessment: "It's like death out here."
This burgeoning tension makes "Vic and Flo" a close relative of Côté's "Curling," in which the daughter of a single man grows increasingly unhappy with their drab small-town environment. In "Curling," a series of incidents with no clear-cut explanation take the plot into "Lost Highway" territory, but "Vic and Flo" lays the problem bare when a group of revenge-seekers track down Florence to make her pay a debt for earlier misdeeds. That particular dilemma holds far less interest than the smartly realized dynamic shared by the characters, particularly once Guillaume begins to sympathize with them.
The two leads carry the movie through its undulating mood, which is as claustrophobic as their woodsy environment. While Côté smuggles flashes of absurdist humor into the dialogue and eventually the narrative, the actors play it straight, lending emotional authenticity that pays off in the climax.
But it's also during those closing moments when Côté's true tendencies come out, elevating a curious chamber drama to something more bizarrely memorable and worthy of further speculation. As a violent twist gives way to Côté's surreal epilogue, "Vic and Flo" takes a sudden turn into metaphorical terrain that's tough to define and much harder to shake. In other words, Côté is in fine form.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Well-liked if not a runaway hit at the Berlin International Film Festival where it's playing in official competition, "Vic and Flo" will have a tough time finding a distributor capable of marketing its offbeat qualities, but some critical support and festival buzz may provide it with enough leverage to gain further accolades in a very limited release.