A certain brand of filmmaking exists that relishes in mounting dread that comes with the mundane of the everyday. These types of films usually exist within a director’s oeuvre as a singular effort. Films like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Why Does Herr R. Run Amok or Aki Kaurismäki’s The Match Factory Girl aren’t exactly reflective of their director’s filmography, but they do stand on their own as affecting efforts. Denis Côté’s Vic + Flo Saw a Bear falls within this categorical range as a work that very deliberately probes the effects of stunted social positioning and the entrapment felt when attempting to become upwardly mobile.
The Vic (Pierrette Robitaille) in Vic + Flo is first seen in the opening frame criticizing children on their poor trumpet playing. Why she’s doing this and where she’s going isn’t directly provided to the audience, though like Fassbinder and Kaurismäki’s aforementioned films, information circulates in steady spurts. A sense of mystery evolves, as Vic takes lodge in her ailing uncle’s cabin where she’s visited by her parole officer. It’s little details like that that simply happen, where a sense of history develops naturally without messy exposition, which truly gives Vic + Flo an alluring sense of naturalism. Flo (Romane Bohringer) enters the frame as Vic’s younger lover whose complicates the presumed sense of solitude that the forest provides with her own baggage. Côté allows the picture to progress, carefully examining the relationships at hand while articulating a rich cinematic vocabulary though his sense of camera movement and framing. There’s a certain kind of eerie energy to the picture that makes it perpetually engrossing even as the finer points of the narrative are not completely known; effectively, Côté achieves a balance between alienating and welcoming his audience.
The big event that concludes the film rivals the shock felt in both Fassbinder and Kaurismäki’s works. It’s a jolt of horror that disrupts and reconfigures our understandings of events. But it’s not an exploitative move. Nor is it particularly surprising. What’s effective about the film is that it all builds up to this conclusive moment not through twisty narratives or gimmickry, but rather through craft and tone management. Every peculiarity to Vic + Flo Saw a Bear develops an eerie atmosphere, but never does Côté allow those eccentricities overwhelm the narrative to a point where it loses its more humane attributes. And because of that, it’s why the film is so successful: it realizes its horrors in a world that feels all too familiar, all too real.