Disjointed 'Vic + Flo' Claws At Ex-Con Themes, Family Drama

Directed by:Denis Cote; Runtime: 95 minutes
Grade: C

Denis Cote's Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is a frustrating study of a pair of flawed ex-criminals on the path to a sustainable, albeit unexciting life after time in prison, and how their unshakable personality traits work against them. In the detached expanses of rural Canada, the director navigates some rather turbulent ground along the way: a lesbian relationship complicated by one's attraction to men; caring for an incapable elderly person shortly after getting released from jail; and the mutual trust between paroled criminals and a caring parole officer. There's a lot for Cote to coherently weave together among the compelling relationship between Vic and Flo, hinged on dependence and dependability along with the lingering fear of one's past coming back to bite them. It's a shame, then, that the thematic burden proves too heavy and unruly for the complex characters and their gradually-revealed histories, building into a confused crime-drama that clashes with its purported dramatic intentions as it nears its climax.

While entirely different in purpose and tone, Cote's film exhibits similarities to The Wachowski's neo-noir thriller Bound, focused on the recent release of Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille) from prison and into a meager, stable life at a sugar shack in the outskirts of Quebec. She meets regularly with a considerate yet no-nonsense parole officer, Guillaume (Marc-Andre Grondin), who tracks her assimilation back into society her domestic living situation, made somewhat complicated by the demands of her minimally-conscious uncle, Emile, and those who cared for him prior to her arrival. Soon after her release, her lover Florence (Romane Bohringer) -- also an ex-convict who's a little less "reformed" yet freer than Victoria -- shows up in her bed and back in her life. Amid the isolation and limited activities, such as gardening and zipping around in a golf cart, Vic stays devoted to keeping her nose clean and relying on Florence's love as her satisfaction. Florence, meanwhile, still has her doubts and independent desires that she hides, as well as ex-colleagues pursuing her for breaking from the life.

Writer/director Cote doesn't rely on those habitual means of exposition to introduce the characters in Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, instead throwing the point-of-view directly on Victoria's stroll to her new home as the casually surreptitious narrative takes shape. Bit by bit, the writing reveals more about her rebellious streak at an older age, her broken relationship with her family, and her attachment to Flo ... yet very little about her incarceration and release. Cote cleverly lets Victoria's erratic personality take shape through her reactions and introspective moments alone -- smoking, hiking, crying -- instead of her personality getting determined by the severity of her crimes. Similarly, Flo nonchalantly enters the picture as she facelessly tumbles underneath Victoria's sheets, later sarcastically responding to her lover's humdrum living conditions, struggling with the unrestrained spirit that likely led to her own imprisonment. These are genuine, appropriately weather-beaten performances from Pierrette Robitaille and Romane Bohringer that add life to the layers of their complex, codependent relationship.

Enriched by gritty camerawork that relishes the nuance of their internal grief and the rural isolation, that enigmatic build-up carries over to the connective tissue within the drama itself, gradually forming an ill-omened mystery around Vic and Flo's past while they butt heads with the parole officer. Cote's rustic, deliberate perspective on the women proves too self-interested to maintain a strong suspenseful pulse alongside everything else going on, though, resorting to characters making doubtful decisions in the creation of the story's paltry conflicts. Vic's gullibility and Flo's insistence on provoking others become a source of frustration instead of enriching the depth of their characters, undermining the potency that come from their same-sex relationship concerns ("Are you going to get yourself a man?") and their strengthening rapport with Guillaume. The side-plot involving the care for Vic's uncle becomes particularly cumbersome, whether it's the concerned extended family who previously cared for him or the awkward reminders of his significance later on.

Regardless of the meandering focus, there's a compelling personal story at the core of Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, where the manufactured dangers behind the skeletons in Flo's closet are elevated by how the situation complicates the women's grasp on security and their admiration for one another, for better and for worse. Then, Denis Cote lets his ambition run wild with a surreal, harrowingly nihilistic ending that effectively renders that development moot, revealing the metaphorical intention behind the film's title in an infuriating moment of character foolishness. It's worth applauding the gusto it took for Cote to push the envelope with such an ending, and it occurs for credible reasons (well, as credible as a heartless, psychotic vendetta can get). Yet, it also comes about unexpectedly and pulls the rug out from under the film's purported objectives, tossing aside the perseverance and adaptation to transitioning out of hard times. Instead, director Cote leaves the homespun calamity of Vic and Flo on a note of regret and futility, and it's a lesser character piece for the bite it delivers.

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