Berlinale 2013 Review: VIC + FLO SAW A BEAR Is Bold, Strange And Surprisingly Dull

Brian Clark, European Editor
As the title suggests, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is a determinedly strange, offbeat film. It's like a juggler with a dozen balls who keeps going, completely indifferent to the fact that he's dropping balls left and right. Of course, in this case, director Denis Côté is tossing around genres, moods, tones and even different versions of reality. While certain moments are a pleasure to behold on their own, Côté lacks the balance and cohesion to really make all of his disparate ideas connect, settling instead for jarring tonal and stylistic shifts that aren't nearly as radical as Côté seems to think they are.

The film opens with a static shot of a boy in a scout uniform playing an awful number on the trumpet to Vic (short for Victoria). When he finishes, he demands money for the performance, which leads to a hilarious lecture from Vic about what does and doesn't merit payment. With its washed-out colors and matter-of-fact dialogue delivery, this scene recalls the deadpan, but still humane comedy stylings of Swedish director Roy Andersson (Songs from the Second Floor, You, the Living). But don't get comfortable! We're then treated to a lively opening credits sequence with jungle drums and huge red text, which suggests a different beast altogether.

And then, suddenly, we're with Vic at a cabin in the country, which is more conducive to sparse dialogue and pensive stares than either of the first two scenes. Vic, as it turns out, has just been released early from a life-sentence in prison, and has decided to retreat to her family's old cabin deep in the wilderness of Canada. Her younger, lesbian lover Flo turns up a few days later, and the two attempt to adjust, not only to each other, but also to life in the country.

Complications and conflicts occur in fits and starts. A neighbor who took care of Vic's dying uncle shows up long enough to cuss her out for not caring about him, then leaves for a while. A parole officer trying to balance his authority with his heart of gold comes and goes as well. And then there's an enthusiastic woman from nearby who wants to help Vic with gardening, but may have another agenda. However, most of the movie revolves around Vic and Flo trying to rekindle their love. These scenes mostly unfold in an understated, observational style with sparse dialogue exchanges and slices of country-life tedium.

Throughout, there are occasional bursts of weirdness, offbeat humor and startling violence, but like the film's numerous side characters, all of the tonal shifts interrupt abruptly, then leave just as quickly. Côté seems determined to avoid suspense or any sort of narrative momentum, and as a result, despite great performances, the film feels oddly lifeless. Only during the surprisingly brutal last 20 minutes does the film pick up a bit, but even here, Côté won't settle for just capping things off with a startling burst of violence. Instead, he quickly moves on to more strange humor, and even a detour into the realm of the metaphysical. Again, these elements come quickly one by one, apropos of nothing.

In hindsight, though, a number of the film's elements are actually quite interesting. In fact, it's easy to see how the film may have worked on paper. Taken all together, a number of the events, and especially the ending, offer unique takes on universal emotions and sometimes suggest intriguing mysteries. If only Côté could have woven all the elements together in a more energetic, cohesive way, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear might have been the daring, offbeat discovery of the year. As it stands, it's more of an overly-self conscious, though occasionally inspired, oddity.  

Naturally, your mileage may vary. That's always a given, I know, but it's especially true here. A number of critics have latched onto the film, including Keyframe's David Hudson, who I hold in very high esteem. Indeed there's a thin line between abstract films that are bizarre, but still honest and emotionally engaging -- Holy Motors and Post Tenebras Lux are two recent examples that come to mind -- and those that just seem to be weird in a "look-at-me!" type of way. The way that Vic + Flo Saw a Bear lurches from character study to detached comedy to violent revenge film to magical realism made it feel like the latter to me, and a fairly dull version of it at that. But if nothing else, it has already proven to be a film which will provoke a number of different reactions.  

A final note of warning: You've probably guessed by now, but while the title works once you've seen the movie, there are sadly no actual bear sightings in the film. 
Around the Internet:
  • I was very taken by Côté's Curling a couple years ago. I really dug his offbeat humor and characterizations. Having just seen his fascinating documentary Bestiaire, I can't wait to see this one.

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