No bears were harmed in the writing of Judge Michael Nazarewycz's review.
The quest to find the best indie films of US-release year 2014 continues.
When a film with "Bear" in the title wins an award with "Bear" in its name—the Alfred Bauer Prize Silver Bear at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival—it must be kismet.
Facts of the Case
Victoria Champagne (Pierrette Robitaille, It's Your Turn, Laura) is a lesbian convict who is newly out of jail. She travels to the backwoods of Quebec to live with her invalid uncle who has been cared for by the neighbor's son. Joining Vic soon thereafter is Florence (Romane Bohringer, 1996's The Apartment), Vic's bisexual lover and another recently released con. Vic and Flo are ready to live in bliss as they are finally free.
Well, sort of.
While Flo has served her time and is truly a free woman, Vic is on probation. Her probation officer, Guillaume Perreira-Leduc (Marc-André Grondin, C.R.A.Z.Y.), makes it known that he can drop in whenever he pleases (and he pleases a lot) and that the Department of Corrections is actually doing the couple a favor by letting them live together (as a stipulation of her probation, Vic cannot associate with known felons like Flo). Still, this is a small price to pay for the ladies to be together.
Well, sort of.
The price of their relationship grows as the couple quickly struggles. Vic wants to stay in the sticks of rural Canada and live a simple life, while the younger Flo wants to move somewhere where there are more things to do. Complicating matters further is the appearance of a mysterious woman from Flo's past, looking to cause trouble.
When it's at its best, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is a film about desperation, and it's at its best for a good piece of film. Vic is desperate to keep Flo. While it isn't expressly stated, you can't help but wonder what prospects an aging lesbian ex-con living in rural Quebec has in the romance department. So desperate is she to keep Flo in her life, Vic even threatens to kill herself if Flo leaves.
Flo's desperation comes from feeling trapped by Vic—not only emotionally (see the suicide reference above), but geographically, at least as far as options for life's simpler pleasures, like nighttime entertainment. The town they live near has nothing to do beyond sitting at the local waterhole, which falls woefully short of the younger woman's needs. But she's also trapped sexually. She wants to explore what men have to offer her as well, and being in a committed same-sex relationship is preventing her from doing that.
Both actresses are superb in their scenes together, with the highlight being their first morning together (after what surely was a ribald night before). Their giggly playfulness demands a beaming smile from the viewer. As an individual, Robitaille shines bright in Vic's quieter, lonelier moments.
But it's when writer/director Denis Côté (Curling) strays away from the burdened couple that the film wobbles, introducing unnecessary melodrama, undeveloped characters, and twists that, while genuinely shocking, feel entirely out of place.
The melodrama comes from Vic's uncle's situation. When Vic arrives, she dismisses the services of the young neighbor who had been caring for her uncle. This incites ire in the boy's father. (And it's not as if a fortune is at stake.) Threats are made, the uncle is removed, and even more (spoiler-free stuff) happens that is better suited in another type of movie.
The probation officer is terribly undeveloped. While he provides a source of conflict, particularly for the feisty Flo, he never provides the sense of foreboding that his early threats of visits "anytime, anywhere" promise.
As for the twist, it's a two-for-one, really, and nothing more can be said about it other than it involves the mysterious woman from Flo's past. The money scenes are sensational—real shockers. But this isn't a shocking movie; it's delicate and thoughtful and hypnotic, all things that are completely jettisoned when these jarring scenes happen.
The film's final moments are both fittingly dramatic and unfittingly bizarre, leaving the viewer simultaneously satisfied and perplexed.
Both the 1.77:1 video presentation and the Dolby 2.0 audio track are serviceable. Neither present any considerable defects, but neither are challenged. From the video perspective, the transfer is good, with a natural grain and no image loss with darker scenes. From the audio perspective, the film is dialogue heavy and the conversations are clear (if you speak French), and the percussion-focused (although bare-bones) score from Melissa Lavergne never interferes with voices or other sounds.
There are two extras on the DVD. The first is the 2:10 trailer in French with no subtitles. The second is a featurette titled "The Bear." It is 35:26 of filmmaking observation. By that, I mean it is as if you are standing behind the scenes and observing all of the things that go on during the making of this movie—blocking, measuring lighting, discussing camera angles, and so on, all the way to scene shooting and editing—and all without narration or context. It is like you are literally there (albeit with subtitles).
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is two-thirds of a great movie, but it's not like it's the first two-thirds. To appreciate its best parts is to suffer its worst, as these best parts are first front-loaded, then scattered throughout. It is certainly worth a watch, although that watch might be, at times, frustrating.
Not Guilty by split decision.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kimstim Films
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