Being a film reviewer doesn't qualify you to direct movies - heck, sometimes it doesn't qualify you to write about them - but it's a career that gave Denis Côté a taste for originality. The Quebec critic-cum-filmmaker can be so elusive he is maddening (Exhibit A: Carcasses, the 2009 documentary about an auto graveyard invaded by a group of Down syndrome children), and you can't exactly say his pictures race along. But there's a straight-faced eeriness to his work that can be haunting.
Take Vic & Flo Saw a Bear, a movie - about two female ex-convicts hiding out in the woods - that staggers with bizarre rhythms to a conclusion that is at once brutal and galvanizing. There's a more conventional movie in there somewhere, but Côté is more interested in circling around it: He doesn't tell a story as much as pick it up, check the bottom to see where it was manufactured, and then shatter it on the floor.
Quebec star Pierrette Robitaille plays Victoria, a sour and lumpish woman just released from a life sentence for crimes unknown, who takes refuge in the isolated shack of her uncle Emile (Georges Molnar). A bearded figure with long white hair, Emile is like a character from some dark western, except that he is paralyzed, speechless and confined to a wheelchair. He also has very little to do with the story beyond adding bleak texture: Vic talks to him in awkward posture, half-turned which is also how the movie is made.
Vic is soon joined by Florence (French actress Romane Bohringer, who narrated The March of the Penguins, by the way), her younger lover and a woman who is similarly drawn and fraught, although in a sexier way. Flo and Vic cavort under the covers, but Flo isn't averse to picking up male partners.
The third part of their triangle, if that's what it is, is Guillaume (Marc-André Grondin), a parole officer who is watchful but sympathetic. Lean, bald and bearded, he looks nothing like a symbol of authority: society seems to have dissipated in the rundown forest. As in Côté s tiresome 2010 film Curling, there are unseen dangers among the trees, although the washed-out cinematography hints at a spirit of poverty as much as one of danger.
We also meet Marina (Marie Brassard), a town employee who inspects the water quality in the local wells and insinuates herself into Vic's life. She flirts mildly and helps Vic start a garden, something to give form to the undergrowth and eventually to the movie. Côté is not in much of a hurry to tell any of this, and scenes begin and end with offkilter randomness, linked by quick cuts to yet another slow meander along forest paths or a ride in a golf cart down rural roads. The score by Melissa Lavergne beats a tom-tom of urgency, as if something is going to happen or perhaps to underline the fact that something isn't, but the very arrhythmia of the thing keeps us attuned, if not exactly engaged.
That's because we don't know much about Vic and Flo. Côté leaves vast spaces for the audience to fill in: Who the people are, for instance, and what they did. He omits the cues of more conventional movies and plays with pacing, so that you don't know how to feel until feeling arrives. That challenge - the fracturing of form - may be why the film won a Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival. The climax of Vic & Flo Saw a Bear is a shocker that arrives out of nowhere, at least until you think about it. It's a devastating and inevitable surprise that asks you to piece everything together - the people, the hints, the allusions. It's harsh and uncomfortable work, but what would you expect from a film reviewer who has taken matters into his own hands?