Go with the Flo

Melissa Anderson on Vic + Flo Saw a Bear

Denis Côté, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, 2013, color, sound, 95 minutes. Vic and Flo (Pierrette Robitaille and Romane Bohringer).

THE WOMEN-BEHIND-BARS GENRE, dating at least as far back as the Barbara Stanwyck–starring Ladies They Talk About (1933) through Orange Is the New Black, has been a steadfast source of sapphic entanglements, whether presented implicitly or explicitly, luridly or not. Denis Côté’s wry, elliptical, but compassionate Vic + Flo Saw a Bear adds to this illustrious tradition by imagining the prisons his same-sex, ex-con lovers find themselves in—some of their own making—after they’ve been sprung.

Dragging a rolling suitcase behind her, sixty-one-year old Vic (Pierrette Robitaille) installs herself in the sugar shack owned by her infirm uncle in backwoods Quebec. Her lover, Flo (Romane Bohringer), roughly two decades her junior, is heard before she is seen, introduced via amorous tussling under the covers. Precisely when their relationship in the pokey began is never specified, nor is the reason for their incarceration; of the exact nature of their crimes, all we learn is that Vic had received a life sentence and that Flo frets about the thugs looking for her. Their sylvan outpost serves as merely a tenuous haven: The former yardbirds are still subject not only to numerous visits by Guillaume (Marc-André Grondin), a sympathetic yet rigidly rule-enforcing parole officer, but also to the aspersions cast by neighbors and kin. Even worse, their isolation exacerbates the tension in their own union: Flo finds their remote location to be “like death,” while Vic insists on staying put in the sparsely populated area, declaring, “I’m old enough to know that I hate people.”

Yet this off-the-grid utopia, where a golf cart suffices as a mode of transportation, that the older woman believes she’s created for herself and her beloved will later be the setting of a particularly nasty revenge scheme against the couple. Côté, a film critic turned filmmaker who has written and directed seven feature-length works since 2005, coolly examined the terrors lurking within seemingly tranquil Canadian woodlands before in Curling (2010), which has another cloistered dyad at its center, an overprotective father and his twelve-year-old daughter. Like Curling’s restrictive dad, Vic is terrified of losing Flo, setting in motion a push-pull between the two women that grows only more painful to witness. Vaguely aware of her girlfriend’s infidelities with men picked up from the local bar and go-kart track, the otherwise immovable Vic becomes increasingly needy and desperate, asking Flo, “What do you like about me?” and pleading, “Tell me something you’ve never told anyone before.”

Her entreaties only drive Flo further away, of course. But Flo’s nonresponses also highlight Côté’s particular gifts for probing the secrets and silences of his outcast and marginalized characters, who seem just beyond the grasp of those who love them most. This dynamic is scrutinized even further in Côté’s 2012 zoo-animal documentary, Bestiaire, an excellent treatise on the limits of interspecies comprehension, the hubris of trying to exercise control over living things that are ultimately unknowable. Pinning down Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is likewise futile: Equal parts love story and horror show, it honors two unapologetically unassimilable women.

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear screens January 11 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the series “First Look 2014” and February 7–13 at Anthology Film Archives.