Monday, February 17, 2014

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear

VIC + FLO SAW A BEAR (Vic + Flo ont vu un ours)             B+         
Canada  (95 mi)  2013  d:  Denis Côté

With VIC + FLO SAW A BEAR, Denis Côté re-emphasizes what a talented and provocative filmmaker he is, one of the few artists working today where the word “radical” comes to mind, as it’s hard to find anyone else comparable, creating a deeply probing character study, yet at the conclusion of this film, audience members will be scratching their heads, searching for any explanatory information, as there are unanswered questions about what it all means.  Typical of other Côté films, the director refuses to explain anything, and instead leaves out pertinent details in his film to make sure the questions remain unanswered.  While some directors intentionally leave clues for the audience, helpful hints to whet their appetite, especially in mysteries, Côté on the other hand makes sure there are no clues whatsoever to guide the audience, where the less information the film provides, the more the viewer must discover on their own.  It should be pointed out that the less you know going into this film, the greater the impact.  In this manner, it is somewhat reminiscent of Rolf de Heer’s ALEXANDRA’S PROJECT (2003), another film that adds an underlying element of creepiness into what otherwise appears to be just another day.  This film is equally unsettling, and not in ways the audience could possibly anticipate, incorporating menacing psychological shifts through the use of heavily percussive music by Melissa Lavergne, like primitive drumbeats suggesting trouble lies ahead, often using humor like a battering ram to keep the pernicious forces at bay.  A former film critic from Montreal, certainly one of the director’s goals in all his films is to acutely observe unfiltered human behavior as objectively as possible, without rendering judgment, where what’s in store for the viewer is likely to be eye-opening.  On this point alone, the director succeeds brilliantly in this film, winner of the 2013 Silver Bear (Alfred Bauer 3rd Prize) at the Berlin Film Festival.

Like Gloria (2013), the Berlin film that won Best Actress, both films feature performances by characters in their 60’s, a rare occurrence in today’s youth oriented cinema, but Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille) as Vic couldn’t be more different, recently paroled from a life sentence for a crime that is never revealed, a woman with a hard edge to her character, who speaks directly and to the point, often using a biting sarcasm to undermine the authority of others.  There’s a brief opening segment, like a story prelude, where she sits next to a young kid dressed in a boy scout uniform trying to play the trumpet where she informs him he’s not very good, and shouldn’t be asking for money when he doesn’t know how to play, but he quips “You could give me a little money, as encouragement.”  It’s a strange moment that seems to foreshadow an unbalanced state of the world, as Vic is seen quickly walking down the road lugging her suitcase behind her, where the baggage she carries may as well be a past that continually haunts her.  Finding a house in the woods, with an old man sitting paralyzed and mute in a wheelchair on the porch, she finds a shirtless teenage kid looking after him, apparently a neighbor boy named Charlot (Pier-Luc Funk), and informs him she’ll be moving in and looking after him, as the old man who used to run this “sugar shack” is her Uncle Émile (Georges Molnar).  Content to sit idly on the premises and do nothing, she ridicules the prowling interests of her visiting parole officer Guillaume (Marc-André Grondin), who arrives unannounced and meticulously inspects the premises like a trained detective, asking probing questions that she contemptuously reflects back onto him, revealing as little as possible, yet she’s subject to this continued scrutiny where after each visit she’s forced to observe him sitting at the table writing notes, never revealing the contents of his observations.  Like his earlier film Bestiaire (2012), where his camera wordlessly gazes upon penned animals, as his intent appears to be observing human behavior through the watchful eyes of animals, the director similarly observes penned-in characters here. 

Adding to the mix is a sudden visit from Vic’s girlfriend, Florence (Romane Bohringer) as Flo, former cellmates who pick up where they left off under the sheets, where her presence adds a great degree of comfort for Vic, where the two of them openly defy the rest of mainstream society, but the bisexual Flo feels suffocated by the remote isolation, taking repeated side trips into town searching for men, leaving Vic disappointedly alone some nights, petrified that she will lose her.  Part of the film’s unique strength is the significance of secondary characters, as Côté weaves them in and out of the tapestry of an evershifting storyline, bringing them prominently into play for a sudden outburst, often shattering any notion of equilibrium.  One of the telling scenes of the film is when Flo meets the incensed neighbor next door (Olivier Aubin), a short, fat man with bulging eyes who initially scowls at her in a bar before revealing his profound resentment for Vic, “What’s a chick like you doing in that shack with that old hag?”  Apparently this guy continues to hold a grudge against Vic for failing to take care of her paralyzed uncle all those years she was incarcerated, a gender bias that suggests instead of he and his son, this is a more appropriate role for women.  His venomous outburst only adds to a perception that it’s these two lesbian lovers in the woods against the world, where any venture outside only points to potential trouble.  Vic and Flo’s tenderness with each other is contrasted by their growing indifference towards everybody else, yet the hostile forces of the world outside have a way of penetrating into their secluded alliance, where Flo’s emotional ambivalence becomes even more threatening, opening the door for ill winds.  A sudden shift in tone reveals the gruesome effects of unleashed hatred and horror, seemingly for no rhyme or reason, as the director provides no backstory to help explain this sudden eruption of jarring images, an aspect that may in fact resemble real life, where irrational hate crimes, for instance, are committed but police investigations often reveal no known motive.  Part of the brilliance of Côté’s film is how meticulously constructed it is, creating complex and convincing characters caught up in an idyllic affair living on the edge of an enveloping wasteland, creating a perilous existential angst surrounded by cruel and sinister forces of primevil intensity that exist without explanation while showing no mercy, a grim and often unrelenting film where perhaps the cruelest joke is the return of the trumpet boy, whose playing has only slightly improved, yet he offers an emphatic punctuation to this unexpectedly horrifying and tragically absurd finale, infused with poetic resonance and a bewildering mystery, while the 80’s French electropop music of Marie Möör’s “Pretty Day” Marie Möör - Pretty Day (Official Cover) - YouTube (2:04) plays over the end credits and almost mockingly whispers “It’s a pretty way to die.”    

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