With French-Canadian director Denis Côté’s seventh film, it’s best to start with the title: “Vic + Flo Saw a Bear.” If you haven’t seen it, it sounds innocuous, even flippant. Once one has seen the film and knows what it refers to, it takes on a tragic dimension. This duality is central to Côté’s aesthetic. “Vic + Flo Saw a Bear” starts off as a love story but winds up in a brutal place. Yet as nasty as it gets, it remains true to the initial romance.
Upon release from jail, 61-year-old Vic (Pierrette Robitaille) moves into her dying uncle’s sugar shack in rural Quebec. Her partner Flo (Romane Bohringer), who’s also an ex-con, soon joins her. They attempt to enjoy a peaceful life among the trees. However, both women are on parole and must constantly deal with gay P.O. Guillaume (Marc-André Grondin) and a nosy neighbor (Marie Brassard), whose intrusions seem increasingly sinister, especially after she goes from helping Vic with her garden to lying about Flo running up a huge tab at a local bar.
Films about lesbians made by straight men tend to be voyeuristic — the recent debate around Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color” and its 10-minute lesbian sex scene would’ve been much different without that history. Refreshingly, “Vic + Flo Saw a Bear” avoids this tendency. It never shows explicit sex. Vic and Flo are middle-aged women, not “babes” in their 20s. If Lena Dunham is considered unattractive by narrow American standards of beauty, Robitaille and Bohringer would be way out of consideration for most heterosexual men's fantasy lives.
Instead, the film’s homoerotic sensibility is oriented toward men, who are often shown shirtless. After seeing “Vic + Flo Saw a Bear,” I assumed Côté was gay and was surprised to learn he’s not. However, his original draft of this film’s screenplay was about a gay male couple, not two women.
Côté’s style of cinema is fiercely regional. While that has undoubtedly hurt his chances of getting US distribution — I had to travel to the Toronto Film Festival to see his first few films — it’s a testament to his uncompromising nature. (His 2010 film “Curling” was sold to a US distributor who, for some reason, never bothered to actually release it.) Although he lives in Montreal and is such an urbanite he doesn’t even know how to drive, most of his films are set in rural Quebec. They avoid the usual clichés about the countryside. In “Vic + Flo Saw a Bear,” rural Quebec is heavily policed, both by the actual cops and by freelance criminals. It promises freedom but does not deliver on it. The cinematography captures its blue and green colors, and even the costumes seem to draw on the same shades as the landscape.
As critic Melissa Anderson wrote, “Vic is terrified of losing Flo, setting in motion a push-pull between the two women that grows only more painful to witness.” Flo is bisexual, casually flirting with the local men. When I interviewed Côté, he told me that he made Guillaume gay as a way of avoiding the possibility of an affair between him and Flo. Up to a certain point, the dangers faced by Vic and Flo seem like an external version of the pressures confronted by every couple. Socially marginal, Vic doesn’t have much to look forward to in life besides her relationship with Flo. Flo may be on the verge of her 40s herself, but, more than two decades younger than Vic, she at least has time on her side.
“Vic + Flo Saw a Bear”’s style initially relies on naturalism, but its ending leans toward horror, if not exactly in the genre sense. These contradictions are familiar in Côté’s work. His previous film, “Bestiaire,” appeared to be a documentary about a zoo in Montreal, but the director admits he manipulated circumstances to make the zoo appear more oppressive toward animals than it actually is and reconstructed much of its soundtrack in the studio after the shoot. His latest film, which is about to premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, also flirts with documentary but includes a few professional actors among its subjects.
In the end, the genre-bending of “Vic + Flo Saw a Bear” makes way for a grim romanticism. Vic and Flo’s fate is simultaneously terrifying and achingly hopeful.
VIC + FLO SAW A BEAR | Directed by Denis Côté | In French with English subtitles | Kimstim | Opens Feb. 7 | Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Ave. at Second St. | anthologyf